At this time one year ago Walker Cup Captain Jim Holtgrieve knew he had a horse that he could build his team around for the two days at National Golf Club on Long Island. At 19 years of age Jordan Spieth had an amateur pedigree that ranked him in elite company.
The then Texas sophomore had two USGA Junior titles on the resume, putting him in the company of Tiger Woods, the only other multiple winner of the junior title. Three years earlier Spieth, at sixteen years of age, made the cut at the Byron Nelson, the sixth youngest player at the time to accomplish that feat on the PGA Tour. He was coming off a freshman collegiate season that earned him All-American honors and a role in his school’s NCAA title. And in a losing effort in Scotland, he was a standout performer for the American Walker Cup team in 2011.
As Holtgrieve takes his American team into the final day of the Walker Cup, his would be anchor will have the weekend free because Spieth is in the hunt for a much bigger cup – the FedEx Cup.
It’s dangerous these days to catch a flash of brilliance and extrapolate the small sample into a career of significance. For twenty-five years the golf world was searching for the next Nicklaus and for the last fifteen Tiger II has been the quest. So taking the professional measure of Spieth with less than a full season on the PGA Tour must be done with a dose of caution. Even so, the now twenty year old has to be the most understated story in golf for 2013, and one of the most closely followed stories in the game for 2014.
When Spieth turned professional in December of 2012 he did so will little fanfare. His late decision left him with little playing status in the professional ranks. His first exposure to playing with a paycheck at the end of the week came on the Web.com Tour and only hardcore golf fans may have noticed that he finished in the top ten in both starts.
After a missed cut in San Diego, Spieth began opening doors for playing opportunities in his next three stops. He tied for 22nd at Pebble Beach, was a runner up in Puerto Rico opposite the Match Play Championship and added another top ten the following week in Tampa Bay.
Disappointing in Texas the two weeks prior to the Masters, he rebounded with his third top ten at the Heritage. May brought him his fourth rookie top ten at Colonial, and he became a name I would mention over the summer when visiting with Ron Jacober on Sports on a Sunday Morning.
Despite missing the cut in both American summer majors, the US Open and PGA Championship, Spieth has put together a stretch of tournament golf that featured his first win and found in contention virtually every week.
A weak Saturday cost him in Philadelphia (6th) and a poor Sunday left him out of the hunt at the Greenbrier (T23rd). Those lessons learned returned dividends in the Quad Cities for John Deere. Over the final three days of that event he was eighteen under par and survived a three-way playoff to become the youngest winner at age 19 on the PGA Tour in 82 years. His historic win garnered little attention as it came in the wake of Phil Mickelson’s simultaneous win at the Scottish Open, the precursor to his Open win the following week.
One month later he threw another 65 at the field on Sunday at the Wyndham Championship, losing a playoff to a miraculous birdie by Patrick Reed. The player who started the year without a tour to play on was comfortably in the mix for the FedEx series.
The thing you have to notice about Spieth is being in the mix is not on his mind. Winning is where his focus lies. Armed with the surprise of being someplace he hoped to be in a few years, Spieth has climbed the ranks of the FedEx points list and must be in the conversation with two weeks remaining.
A poor Sunday at Barclays left him out of the top ten (T19) but at Deutsche Bank he demonstrated fourth round nerves are not part of his current makeup. Playing well ahead of the leaders in Boston, he threw a personal best 62 at the field, including a birdie, birdie, eagle close, and his fourth place finish leaves him tenth in FedEx points leading into Chicago.
Last week, the would be Walker Cupper in 2013 became the will be President’s Cupper at Muirfield Village this year. His play left Captain Fred Couples little choice but to make him a pick along with Webb Simpson to fill out his roster.
Spieth plays with composure that belies his youth. He is more polite than flamboyant. He still retains a sense of modesty about what has done and a reluctance to speculate where he might go.
His rookie numbers suggest a workman like talent, solid in most areas but with room to grow in all. His driving stats reveal a player of competitive length who is all the more dangerous off the tee because he keeps the ball in play.
Not a statistically great putter, he nonetheless ranks in the top 25 in birdie percentage and top five in eagle percentage. His eleventh over all scoring average of 69.78 would be number one if the third round totals weren’t so pedestrian. Ranking 120th on Saturday, Spieth turns that number around consistently on Sunday ranking sixth on the PGA Tour.
His PGA Tour win at nineteen puts him one year ahead of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy but that accomplishment is best examined five years from now when Jordan Spieth has put together a body of work over the course of a few years that will then rightfully suggest comparisons with other golf luminaries.