Jordan Spieth says he’s not the type of guy to think about golf 24/7. But after listening to him recount his breakout 2008 — down to club selection and pin positions — without taking more than a few breaths, you have to think otherwise.
His most vivid made-for-the-memory-banks moment came last October at the AJGA’s Ping Invitational. Down four shots to Cory Whitsett to start the final round, Spieth rallied with five birdies on the front nine en route to a 4-under 68 to top Whitsett by two shots at Karsten Creek.
The victory, Spieth’s first in an invitational, was made even more special because he was playing alongside the 2007 U.S. Junior champ and former top-ranked junior in the country.
“A year ago, I was looking up to Cory,” Spieth said. “My goal was to get up to his level. To outdo him like that, it was just awesome.”
Now, as the 2009 junior season kicks into high gear this week with three AJGA events – the Mizuno Junior at Innisbrook, Laredo Energy Junior at Traditions and Heather Farr Classic – everyone is looking up to Spieth.
He’s the top-ranked player in the Golfweek/Titleist Junior Rankings, an impressive mark considering he’s still four months shy of his 16th birthday. What’s more, Spieth got his first real taste of elite AJGA action just last season. In six stroke-play events, the Dallas native won twice and never finished outside the top 7. In addition to his AJGA schedule, Spieth won the Byron Nelson Junior by nine shots to become the event’s youngest champion, and finished runner-up at the British Junior Open and Junior PGA Championship.
“We knew he was good,” Whitsett said. “We were a little unsure (to begin the season) because he hadn’t really done much nationally. But then he’s in the top 10 everywhere.”
Spieth isn’t resting on his accomplishments, however. A week after his victory at Ping, he began working with a trainer four days a week. His goal: build strength and flexibility to gain distance off the tee, an area he said needed improvement after watching Whitsett and others bomb it past him.
So far, it’s worked. Spieth has gained 4 to 5 mph in clubhead speed, and has boosted his average drive from 275 yards at the end of last season to a stout 290 yards this spring.
The increased length, to go along with one of the best putting strokes in junior golf (“He frustrates a lot of kids because he makes everything,” Whitsett says), will not only give Spieth a distinct advantage on the junior circuit this summer, but also as he tests himself at amateur events and U.S. Open qualifying.
“Jordan always looks for that next mountain to climb,” said his instructor Cameron McCormick. “He’s not fearful about performing against competition better than him. That’s very unique.”
Also working in Spieth’s favor is his personality. At last year’s U.S. Junior Amateur, McCormick touted Spieth, who was 14 at the time, as being above most of his competitors in mental and social maturity. Spieth advanced to the quarterfinals and was defeated by Andrew Yun. He wasn’t fazed.
“I didn’t look at that as a failure,” Spieth said. “I just knew I had a lot more work to do.”
Spieth’s maturity was again on display in February at the HP Boys Championship, the first top-tier boy’s event of the AJGA season. Tied at the end of regulation, Spieth and Patrick Winther went extra holes. On the second playoff hole, Spieth hit a poor drive and couldn’t reach the par 4 in two. Winther responded by sticking his approach from 142 yards to a foot to seal the victory.
“I mentally forced myself to get into contention,” Spieth said. “I didn’t lose that tournament, he won it.”
Spieth will have a chance to rebound this weekend at The Traditions Club, a course on which he won last year. Not surprisingly, he finished ahead of Cory Whitsett and reigning Rolex Junior Player of the Year Cameron Peck. The victory propelled Spieth to a season he’ll never forget.
Now, he’s ready to do it all over again.