Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the Sept. 9, 2011 issue of Golfweek.
DALLAS – The young phenom was locked in a tight match against the old pro, and as is often the case, experience was in the lead. There was the requisite ribbing, especially when the prodigy spun his approach shot off the green, leaving a tough chip to a hole set just behind a steep ledge.
The old pro, 38-year-old Cameron McCormick, made it known that bogey was a certainty. But the appeal of youth is its ability to surprise. So it shouldn’t be a shock that the kid sank the chip to win the hole.
“Don’t ever tell me what I can’t do!” Jordan Spieth yelled toward McCormick, punctuating their trash talk with advice worth heeding today. Spieth, a Texas freshman, is about to begin his college career with the rarest of resumes: He’s the only player other than Tiger Woods to win multiple U.S. Juniors. He already has contended twice at his hometown PGA Tour event, the HP Byron Nelson Championship.
Spieth isn’t the only incoming freshman whose college application included some impressive extracurriculars, though. He’s part of an exceptionally strong class, one that should be a dominant storyline this college season. The freshman who makes the smoothest transition to campus life could be the one who leads his team to the NCAA Championship.
“It’s just crazy how many accomplished players there are in this group,” USC head coach Chris Zambri said.
Three members of this class have made the cut in PGA Tour events: Spieth, Alabama’s Justin Thomas (T-84, 2009 Wyndham Championship) and USC’s Anthony Paolucci (T-29, 2011 Farmers Insurance Open). Stanford’s Patrick Rodgers won the Porter Cup and will team with Speith in the Walker Cup. Washington’s Cheng-Tsung Pan won this year’s Azalea Invitational and twice has won the 72-hole, stroke-play portion of the Western Amateur, considered the second-strongest amateur event in the United States. Pan also qualified for this year’s U.S. Open.
Spieth’s theory for his and his peers’ success? “I think we’re all just fearless out there. No one expects us to do well, but we all expect ourselves to have a chance to win every time we tee it up.”
Jordan Spieth and instructor Cameron McCormick met with Golfweek for an instruction piece. Take a look at some of Spieth’s secrets.
When Spieth received his first Nelson invite, friends and family implored him to have fun. He had other plans.
“I ended up enjoying it, of course, after the rounds,” he said. “But during the round, I was intense. I was trying to win.”
Confidence and coincidence explain the success of Spieth and his classmates. It just so happens that several talented players started school in the same year. If Spieth hadn’t been born a week early in 1993, he’d be entering his senior year of high school, his father, Shawn, said. This group also extends a recent trend: From Patrick Cantlay and Peter Uihlein to Tom Lewis and Harris English, more amateurs are having their share of success against the professionals.
“They’re just ahead of the curve right now,” Georgia head coach Chris Haack said. One of his incoming freshmen, Nicholas Reach, already has played three Nationwide Tour events. “The better junior players are having more success at the amateur level; the better amateur players are having success at the professional level. They’re moving up quicker than they did in the past.”
Like Woods, Spieth first swung a golf club as a toddler, but the experience was serendipitous. His parents were shopping for baby supplies when they spotted a set of plastic clubs. Shawn and Chris Spieth figured the clubs could be the perfect distraction for 18-month-old Jordan, an active tot by all accounts, as they cared for his newborn brother, Steven. When the family arrived home, Jordan headed to the backyard, new toys in tow. He was smitten from the start, spending hours outdoors.
“We had to yank him inside at 11 o’clock that night,” said Shawn Spieth, who didn’t pick up golf until after college. Jordan’s introduction to golf was brief but a sign of things to come. “Maybe it was a precursor to going out and spending hours on the range,” Shawn said.
Jordan Spieth’s golf career began in earnest when he was 8 and his family joined Dallas’ Brookhaven Country Club. He spent his first summer there on the swim team, but grew envious of the kids on the practice range.
“When he was 9, he would come in and wake me up on a Saturday morning, fully dressed and ready to go to the course,” Chris Spieth said.
Golf doesn’t run deep in the Spieth bloodlines, but athletic success and a penchant for hard work do. Spieth’s grandfather, Don Spieth, turned down a golf scholarship to Iowa to pursue a music career. He became a conductor, formed the Lehigh Valley Orchestra and led it to Carnegie Hall. Shawn Spieth, a 7 handicap, played baseball at Lehigh University and earned a master’s in business administration there. Chris Spieth played basketball at Moravian College, once ranking among the top free-throw shooters in NCAA Division III. Steven, 16, is being recruited to play Division I basketball.
Jordan also has a younger sister, Ellie, 10, whose cognitive and neurological development have been delayed for unknown reasons. Jordan volunteers at her school, Vanguard Preparatory School, which serves children with social, emotional and learning differences. Spieth’s time there has helped the driven phenom gain perspective and develop a close relationship with his sister.
“I still think he wants to be the best at what he does,” Chris Spieth said, “but I think it calmed him down a little bit and made him realize there’s more in the world.”
Shawn Spieth describes his son as “typical first-born, type-A, driven.” When McCormick calls him “something special,” Jordan quickly shoots back, “Unfortunately, it’s not true. I’ve got a long way to go.”
Those words were spoken shortly after this year’s Nelson, where he pulled within three shots of the lead on Sunday before playing his final four holes 6 over to fall into a tie for 32nd. Spieth may offer a different opinion because of his high standards, but he accomplished a lot before recently turning 18.
He has played golf with a former president – George W. Bush, who also takes lessons from McCormick – and one of the nation’s most recognizable athletes, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo. Spieth tied for 16th at the 2010 Nelson, and played the final round this year with the tournament winner, Keegan Bradley.
“I saw what it took to win a Tour event,” Spieth said.
Patience is important in a game that can take five-plus hours and a career that can last 40 years, but it seems that today’s young players are progressing quicker than in years past.
John Fields, Texas’ head coach, remembers when he first saw Spieth. It was on the second tee at Dornick Hills Golf & Country Club in Ardmore, Okla. Spieth was 13 at the time.
“You could just kind of tell that he was different,” Fields said. “He just looked professional at that age. He was polished.”
Some of that comes from having parents who were successful athletes, who shared with their son the determination and attention to detail necessary to succeed at sports. But Spieth isn’t the only player on such a career path.
“The amateurs of today are pros,” Tom Watson said after playing with the 20-year-old Lewis at the Open Championship, where the Englishman shot 65 to hold the first-round lead. “They play a lot of competition, and they have the trainers like the pros do. They have the coaches like the pros do. They have the video equipment like the pros do.”
Said USC’s Zambri: “Everything’s just different now. It’s amped up. . . . Back when I played, your dad would buy you a driver when you were in 10th grade, and no matter what, you’re using it for a year-and-a-half.”
Now many top junior players get the tour-pro treatment, visiting club manufacturers’ facilities for high-tech custom fittings. Today’s juniors also enjoy more exposure to professional and top-level amateur events.
It started with Casey Wittenberg, who made the 2003 Walker Cup team before his freshman season at Oklahoma State. The next two U.S. teams featured recent high-school graduates: Brian Harman in 2005 and Rickie Fowler in ’07.
“Those successes allowed people running the amateur tournaments a little more freedom to let more (juniors) in,” Georgia’s Haack said.
This year, Rodgers and Spieth, quarterfinalists at last month’s U.S. Amateur, are representing their country before representing their colleges.
Spieth, Paolucci, Thomas, Rodgers and Georgia Tech freshman Oliver Schniederjans shared a house at this year’s Jones Cup, an invite-only tournament that’s among the nation’s best amateur events.
They’ll also share plenty of headlines during this upcoming college season, thanks to that early exposure to big-boy golf.