U.S. Jr.: Can Spieth avoid another early exit?

BREMERTON, Wash. – One year later, and so much remains the same. Jordan Spieth is the prohibitive favorite at the U.S. Junior Amateur. That much is indisputable. He’s the best junior player in the country, and he has drawn a favorable second-round matchup, and yet there remains an unmistakable wariness.

“Everyone is going to bring their best for me,” Spieth said Wednesday, after defeating Blake Toolan, 4 and 3, in the opening round, “and I really have to be prepared for anything. I had an eye-opener last year.”

A year ago, Jordan Spieth was the prohibitive favorite at the U.S. Junior Amateur. It was indisputable. He was the best player in the country, and he had drawn a favorable second-round matchup, and then he lost the final two holes and was defeated by a peach-fuzzed kid named Robby Shelton, with whom Spieth was unfamiliar.

When Spieth, 17, steps to the first tee here at Gold Mountain, he admittedly knows only about a dozen players. (And his second-round opponent, Wesley Gosselin, isn’t one of them.) But that didn’t matter last year. Against Spieth, the face of junior golf, these players are either intimidated or fearless. There’s rarely a gray area.

“I don’t know if that helps or hurts,” says Spieth of his reputation, but he still brought to the Pacific Northwest a new outlook, a different mind-set that, hopefully, will guard against any potential pratfalls.

“My goal this week,” he said, “is to stay really controlled. I don’t want to get too excited when the good stuff happens, and I don’t want to get too anxious when I go down, because it can happen easily. There are so many good players here, and when someone gets going out of the gate, you just have to stay calm.”

And that didn’t happen last year. One up with two holes to play against the 229th-ranked player in the country, Spieth failed to birdie the par-5 17th, then three-putted from the front of the 18th green to lose to Shelton, 1 up.

“Honestly, it went by so fast coming in that I’m just sort of shocked that it’s over,” he said at the time.

Reflecting on that experience Wednesday, in front of the massive leaderboard near the first tee at Gold Mountain, Spieth can only shake his head at the memory. It all seems so familiar. On Thursday, he will play Gosselin, ranked 216th in the country, a 16-year-old from Knoxville, Tenn., a Tennessee-Chattanooga commit, a kid who hasn’t won on any significant junior circuit.

“I learned that even though I don’t know most of the people here, I can’t take anything for granted,” said Spieth, who will attend Texas in the fall. “I was very confident, and I let an off-day get the best of me because I wasn’t really ready to play. I just have to make sure I’m prepared for anything, because I wasn’t last year.”

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