Commentary

Spieth doesn't back down vs. Tiger

Updated: January 25, 2014, 1:03 AM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

SAN DIEGO -- There are myriad reasons why playing alongside Tiger Woods can cause consternation among even the best golfers. The huge crowds that follow, the hordes of media inside the ropes, the aura of the game's No. 1 player.

For years, Woods has been making it tough on his playing companions, not necessarily by design, but by simply being himself. The way Woods typically hits the ball can make others feel inadequate and there can sometimes be a tendency to get caught up in what he is doing.

[+] EnlargeJordan Spieth
AP Photo/Lenny IgnelziJordan Spieth played his first two rounds with Tiger Woods in competition this week at the Farmers Insurance Open. The 20-year-old Spieth bested the world No. 1 both times.

That has hardly been the case for Jordan Spieth, who put on an impressive display in Woods' presence on Friday at the Farmers Insurance Open.

Spieth shot a 9-under-par 63 on Torrey Pines' North Course, making nine birdies and no bogeys to vault to the top of the leaderboard through 36 holes. Meanwhile, Woods struggled to a 71, made just two birdies, and for the second straight day failed to go under par on any of the par-5s.

To give it some everyman perspective: Spieth could have given Tiger 4 shots a side and come out even.

"I wasn't intimidated by any means," said Spieth, 20, who is the reigning PGA Tour Rookie of the Year. "I grew up watching him obviously just like I did with a lot of these veterans out here, so I've idolized him, watched him win majors and whatnot. It was exciting to finally be paired with him."

Spieth took the 36-hole tournament lead by 1 stroke over Stewart Cink and by 2 over Belgium's Nicolas Colsaerts, with Woods 9 strokes back and tied for 50th place.

Given Spieth's performance in his first year as a pro -- winning a tournament, finishing runner-up three times, being picked for the U.S. Presidents Cup team -- nothing should be a surprise for him anymore.

But to perform alongside Woods is another matter. They had played a practice round together at the Presidents Cup in October, so there was a familiarity. But inside the ropes, when it counts? Plenty have succumbed to that scenario.

Jimmy Walker, the other player in their group, told a funny story the other day about how he had played one hole with Woods during a practice round when he was an amateur, and he had never been more nervous.

"I am literally shaking," said Walker of the occasion at the 2001 Byron Nelson Championship, where Woods was racing through a practice round and caught up to Walker. "I have every bad swing thought possible, don't shank it, top it, all that stuff."

Spieth certainly showed none of that anxiety over the past two days.

"The kid's got talent," Woods, 38, said of Spieth. "He hits it a long way, phenomenal putter. He made a boatload of putts today from the 10- to 20-foot range and that's on Poa [annua, the type of grass] greens. That's not easy to do. But he was pouring them in there. He had speed to them, too, and he putted with a lot of confidence."

A year ago, Spieth made his professional debut in the Farmers Insurance Open and missed the cut. He had tried to Monday qualify and failed, but was then given a sponsor's exemption. When he left San Diego, Spieth had no status on the PGA Tour or even on the Web.com Tour and was outside of the top 800 in the world.

But he slowly built success through other sponsor exemptions and eventually earned enough money to become a special temporary member of the PGA Tour, which meant unlimited exemptions. Spieth then won enough money to be exempt for the rest of the 2013 season, was a playoff winner at the John Deere Classic -- which led to full membership -- and gained eligibility for the FedEx Cup playoffs along with spots in the Open Championship and PGA Championship.

And as if to show it was no fluke, Spieth began 2014 by finishing second to Zach Johnson at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions. He is now ranked 17th in the Official World Golf Rankings and sits on the verge of cracking the top 10 if he wins here.

Doing so well under Woods' watchful eye is another step in the process. Perhaps if they are grouped together in contention on a Sunday, it'll make that situation easier.

"I can't speak for Saturday or Sunday when (Tiger's) in contention, but (he's) very easy to play with," Spieth said. "We were talking a lot of the round. Same with Jimmy. Just a fun couple of guys to play with. When you can see some of the shots that he pulls off, it's cool to play with him. Even though he didn't make a lot of putts today, didn't really make any putts today, you still kind of feed off when you're playing with a couple of the best players in the world."

Spieth failed to put himself in that group, perhaps just an oversight of youth.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com

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