BEDMINSTER, N.J. — When Donald Trump tells you he’s enjoyed watching you play, you must be doing something right.
Jordan Spieth was standing in front of the scoreboard juggling a mix of emotions – he had just gotten done beating a good friend in the semifinals of the U.S. Junior – when he was approached by The Donald.
“He said, ‘It’s been a pleasure watching you play this week,’ ” said Spieth. “It was cool.”
The compliment helped ease some of the sting Spieth felt from outlasting good friend Logan Harrell, 1 up, in one of the tournament’s most riveting matches. The back-and-forth battle gave Spieth a berth in the final of the U.S. Junior and exorcised any demons that remained from last year’s Junior. Attempting to become the youngest U.S. Junior champ in history, Spieth lost to Evan Beck, 1 up, in the semifinals last year.
“I think I’ve handled the pressure a little better this year,” said Spieth, who is attempting to become the first medalist to win the title since Matthew Rosenfeld in 2000. “Tomorrow, we’ll see how I handle the pressure.”
That pressure will come in the form of Hwang, a virtual unknown in the junior golf world. He has one AJGA start this year, a second-place finish at the Preseason Junior at Marshalia Ranch.
Hwang, who moved to the U.S. from Taiwan just last year, plays most of his golf on the PGA Southern California Junior Tour and its Toyota Tour Cup Series. He beat Nicholas Reach, 3 and 2, in the semis.
“(I’ve) got a chance,” Hwang said. “I just have to keep hitting good shots.”
Finalists of the U.S. Junior receive exemptions to the U.S. Amateur at Southern Hills, which will be held August 24-30. When an unwitting Hwang was told this, he said he may now have to cancel a previously scheduled AJGA start that week.
“Of course I’ll play!” Hwang said when asked if he would play in the U.S. Am.
But before that arrives, Spieth and Hwang will focus on tomorrow’s match.
The two enter the final on different ends of the junior golf spectrum.
Spieth, the No. 1-ranked player in the Golfweek/Titleist Junior Rankings, is a three-time winner with the AJGA, including last year’s Ping Invitational. He has not finished outside the top 10 in an AJGA event since October 2007. That’s 11 consecutive top-10 finishes.
“We’re just proud that he’s a good kid,” said Shawn Spieth, Jordan’s father. “He’s got a big heart. He’s humble.”
Spieth was humbled slightly in his semifinal match against Harrell. The two traded birdies in front of a large gallery that included Trump for most of the day.
Spieth was 4 up through six, but Harrell birdied Nos. 9 and 10 and then sank a 30-foot birdie putt on No. 11 to square the match. He pumped his fist and let out a fierce, “Let’s go!”
“I knew I had momentum at that point,” said Harrell. “I got down early but made a great comeback.”
The par-5 15th was the most pivotal hole of the match. Harrell missed a 12-footer for birdie while Spieth made his 10-foot birdie putt to take a 1-up lead. Harrell followed with a three-putt bogey on No. 16 and went 2 down. Spieth closed out the match with a 3-footer for par on No. 18.
Afterward, the two embraced and shared a few words.
“It’s tough. I couldn’t be happier for him, though,” Harrell said afterward. “(I learned) I could play with the best of them.
“I said, ‘That was a hell of a fight,’ ” Spieth said of their exchange. “He said, ‘Don’t worry about me. I want you to go out there (tomorrow) and dominate.’ ”
Standing in his way will be Hwang, an unassuming 16-year-old who learned the game in Taiwan by going to the range with his grandmother. Talking to Hwang, one might get the impression he doesn’t realize the magnitude of his position. That may be the reason he’s made it so far.
“I might be more nervous tomorrow,” Hwang said. “But I’m very happy.”
Asked if he thinks he might have any trouble sleeping Friday night, Hwang was quick to answer.
“I hope not,” he said.
After a 36-hole final Saturday, sleep will come easily to both players. Then again, maybe just one will sleep well.