BREMERTON, Wash. – As the victory lap turned down the back nine, Michael Greller looked at his player and put this shining moment in perspective. The caddie said: “Well, this is the last nine holes of your junior career.”
Jordan Spieth nearly stopped in the 10th fairway at Gold Mountain. It’s over? He’s been playing in junior events since he was 9, in front of college coaches since he was 13, and now he’s arguably one of the greatest junior players of all-time, having won the U.S. Junior Amateur for the second time in three years after a 6-and-5 victory Saturday over Chelso Barrett.
Yet two hours after winning . . . Spieth slipped into reverie. Red River Shootout, Ardmore, Okla., eighth grade. On the third hole at Dornick Hills, the then-13-year-old chose 5-iron while his older, stronger, bigger competitors used 9. John Fields, the head coach at Texas, waited behind the tee. Then Spieth hit it to 5 feet in front of the first college coach he’s ever seen. A sheepish grin.
“I thought, Oh my gosh, they all just saw me,” Spieth said. “I got over my 5-footer, and I swear I had a lazy eye looking at the coaches when I was putting. I yanked the putt.”
He can’t help but laugh at the memory. So young and naive. Now the U.S. Junior trophy twice has his name engraved on the bottom, and he doesn’t want the day to end.
“Everything’s gonna change,” he said, shaking his head. “Things are definitely going to change.”
Applying proper prospective to this feat will take years, not days. In many ways, Tiger Woods’ run of three consecutive U.S. Junior titles (1991-93) is impressive because it merely added to the legend. He was a once-in-a-generation star. To win three straight Juniors in this era . . . with the advancements in technology and the depth of the fields and the evolution of junior golf . . . well, it seems impossible. Instead, Spieth will finish with a 17-2 record in this championship. In ’08, in his first attempt, he lost in the semifinals. In ’09, he medaled then won. Last year, during what he called “a lapse in concentration,” he lost in Round 2. It’s why this year, despite admittedly knowing about a dozen players in the field of 156, he poured all of himself into each match.
Just how difficult is it to bring the heat each time out? Entering Saturday, Spieth had played 115 holes, some of them miserably (he never won the first hole), some of them brilliantly (oh, about the other 17). In his five previous matches, he led for all but nine holes and never was worse than 2 down. It was all part of the spectacle.
After winning a hole Saturday, he couldn’t wait to keep playing, bolting from green to tee and leaving Barrett, his opponent in the finals, to navigate amongst the crowd. Against Spieth, Barrett gave up about four inches and 30 pounds, about 40 yards off the tee, about a year’s worth of experience. That proved to be the difference when the greens at Gold Mountain developed that USGA thump, and the long days began to take their toll, and Spieth was practically willing the ball into the cup. While Barrett offered resistance in spurts, the match was over before the hourlong lunch break. Thirty-six-hole finals are almost fluke-proof.
Says Barrett, 16, “Guess you gotta have your ‘A-game’ to play in the finals.”
All week, players were deferential to Spieth. Beau Hossler, the stroke-play medalist, joked that he wouldn’t be surprised if Spieth shot 58 – yes, 58 – in qualifying. There were some players he’d want to face, Hossler said, and others he would not. He was speaking about Spieth. Spieth’s opponent in the semifinals, Adam Ball, relished that challenge, or so he said. “I want a good match with a lot of birdies,” Ball said before they faced off . . . and then Spieth made eight birdies in 13 holes, including five consecutive on the front nine, to win, 7 and 5, to tie the most lopsided result of the week.
For his part, Barrett, of Keene, N.H., knew he was the underdog Saturday against Spieth. Yes, he knew it, liked it, embraced it. On Friday afternoon he won his match, in part, because on the 18th hole, with the match all square, he used the toe of his putter to pop the ball out of the rough, trickle it down the slope and into the cup for birdie. Barrett raised his left arm as he chased it in, like Jack Nicklaus in that famous 1986 clip, then won on the next hole.
The last time Barrett and Spieth met, in Round 1 of the 2010 U.S. Junior, Spieth won, 7 and 5. This time, Spieth was the one visibly nervous. On the practice putting green before the morning 18, his father, Shawn, hoped he could allay the nerves, giving him a few playful pats on the back. Would that free him up? Jordan’s first two swings (and first two holes, both losses) proved otherwise. That’s not unusual. They say if you’re not nervous, you don’t care. Spieth cares. A lot. He set his summer schedule around this event. The Western Amateur is in a few weeks. Then the U.S. Amateur. Play well in that stretch, he figures, and a spot on the Walker Cup team could follow. When asked his chances of making the squad, he smiled and said: “Well, I know this didn’t hurt.”
If you don’t think the Walker Cup was his goal at the start of the season . . . well, then you don’t know Spieth. There’s no confusing his intentions. He still uses his stand bag from the Canon Cup, the Ryder Cup-style event the AJGA hosts every summer. His golf shoes have a United States flag printed on the back. He wore those during the 2010 Junior Ryder Cup, in Perthshire, Scotland, where he went 3-0 and helped lead the U.S. to victory. “I’m about as patriotic as it gets,” he said. Last October, in his final start of the season, after a 15-month winless drought in national events, Spieth authored a record-smashing performance at the AJGA Ping Invite, winning by nine. “I’ve been so hungry to get back in the winner’s circle in a big event,” Spieth said at the time. “This summer, people were saying I’ve been in a little slump or whatever, but this has been the best ballstriking summer of my life.”
And now he’s gotten better? After the Ping, Spieth began a self-imposed, five-month hiatus during which he overhauled his body and retooled his swing, creating more power by stabilizing his hips and glutes. (“I used to be really, really scrawny,” he said, smiling. “Now I’m just a little scrawny.”) When he returned in February, at the Jones Cup in Georgia, he checked in at 6 feet, 185 pounds. That week he lost in a playoff in one of the most prestigious amateur events of the season. A few days later, he won an AJGA invitational in Texas. Welcome back.
So Spieth, who will turn 18 on Wednesday, came here to the Pacific Northwest as the favorite, per usual, and with that comes heightened expectations. A positive caddie was a necessity; the kid tends to be too hard on himself. Enter his looper for the week, the 34-year-old Greller, a sixth-grade teacher from nearby University Place who caddies at Chambers Bay each summer. He was recommended by another standout junior, Justin Thomas, with whom he worked at last year’s U.S. Amateur at Chambers.
“I had goosebumps when Justin called me and said, ‘Spieth wants you,’ ” Greller said. “I was a little intimidated myself. I’m just a sixth-grade teacher.” But in a display of unity, he went to the store and bought two Texas Longhorns hats, swallowing his Michigan pride.
What they accomplished together “hasn’t yet sunk in, this event or my whole junior career,” Spieth said. It probably will on the 10 a.m. flight back to Dallas. All the local junior events, all the AJGA invitationals, the two national titles. All of it.
“Gosh almighty, it’s been incredible to watch,” said Fields, the Texas coach. “To understand what his goals are, and to see him accomplish it, it’s an incredible moment. It’s exhilarating to watch, because has so much more coming.”