Spieth cruises into historic U.S. Junior finale

Jordan Spieth during the Round of 16 at the U.S. Junior Amateur at Gold Mountain.

Jordan Spieth during the Round of 16 at the U.S. Junior Amateur at Gold Mountain.

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BREMERTON, Wash. – He tip-toed backward as soon as the ball began its glorious ascent. When it finally landed next to the flag, Jordan Spieth walked up to his opponent, Adam Ball, gripped his right shoulder and whispered, “There’s no way you’re getting inside that one.” No, not today. Even a friendly closest-to-the-pin contest would go Spieth’s way.

“Unbelievable,” Ball, 17, said, wiping his hair out of his eyes. “I’m happy to lose to a guy like him.”

For three hours Friday afternoon, Spieth delivered a vintage performance. He strode purposefully, shoulders back, chin up. He blew on his fingertips, and he chatted up the USGA officials, and he smiled, smiled wide, when his shots were executed to perfection. You heard that word a lot while walking around Gold Mountain. Perfection. Spieth won, 7 and 5, in an awe-inspiring romp to advance to the finals of the U.S. Junior Amateur.

Could this have come at a better time? Well, sure, a repeat Saturday wouldn’t hurt. But consider the circumstances: After his quarterfinal match Friday morning against Andrew Whalen, Spieth said he was still waiting for everything to click, for his irons to be struck with conviction, for his putter to cooperate at a critical time. He knew only his best would be enough to stave off Ball, who seems to make birdies by the dozen. In the fading sunlight Thursday, Ball had closed with a flourish – an eagle on No. 14 and four consecutive birdies – to win his match and reach the quarterfinals. And against Beau Hossler, the stroke-play medalist, he made four birdies and virtually no mistakes. So maybe all Spieth needed was to play the hottest player in the field. Maybe that would free him up. “I was joking with him toward the end,” Spieth, 17, said, “that my goal was to end this before we got to 14. He’s got unbelievable firepower.”

Not enough to keep pace with Spieth, of course. Not on this afternoon, at least. And while Spieth was expected to reach Saturday’s final, nothing in match play is guaranteed. After all, he was the top-ranked junior player in the country last year, too, but was bounced in Round 2 by a peach-fuzzed 14-year-old from Alabama. He learned from that defeat, like all the great ones do, and nothing is to be taken for granted, no player overlooked, no hole taken lightly. Over the offseason he rebuilt his body, adding 25 pounds of muscle (up to 185), and refined a swing that now is more powerful and consistent. Think about that for a moment. Spieth was the 2009 U.S. Junior champ, he’s won on the AJGA five times (four of which were invitationals) . . . and he still wanted more at this level.

“I needed to get prepared,” he said, “for college golf and college life.” He will play for Texas in the fall. But before he arrives in Austin, he wants to match Tiger Woods, becoming only the second player to win multiple U.S. Junior titles. He wants to lock up a spot on the U.S. Walker Cup team, no matter the route. Another USGA title, he figures, can only help his candidacy . . .

But let’s not ruin this moment, let’s not overlook this round. On a sun-kissed afternoon at Gold Mountain, Spieth produced three impeccable shots in a career already full of them. Add it all up, and it was eight birdies (with concessions) in 13 holes, including five straight. A 25-footer down the hill, twice breaking, on No. 3. A tee shot to a foot on No. 5. A 278-yard 3-wood to 15 feet on 6. “That’s as good as I can play there,” he would say later.

Spieth was 6 up at the turn, and for the first time all week, he was able to enjoy the sights, the sounds, the moments. He had fun with his opponent, while silently wishing to end the match in the fewest number of holes, lest his legs grew weary. Five down on 11, Ball ripped a tee shot down the fairway and kept walking, right off the tee. “I’m going to the bathroom,” he said, looking over his shoulder at Spieth. “Don’t cheat.”

Spieth smiled, turned to the USGA official on the tee and cracked, “Think I can throw it down there?” No, no, his 300-yard drive on a string would suffice. So would his hybrid to 5 feet on the 245-yard 12th and his mid-iron to 6 feet on 13. Said Texas coach John Fields, “I think he’s been waiting for a round like this.”

A round where he would “go after everything,” not the three-quarter punch shots he’s been playing all week. A round where his great shots were rewarded. A round where he capitalized on his opponent’s mistakes. “It was one of those rounds,” Spieth said, “where I was kind of in the zone. I wasn’t thinking about anything but being aggressive. I haven’t had that happen in a while.”

On Saturday, Spieth will face Chelso Barrett, with whom he has a brief history. They played each other in the first round of match play last year at the U.S. Junior . . . and Spieth won, 7 and 5.

This day’s rout wasn’t but five minutes old when Ball was asked the question: Do you think you just played the future U.S. Junior champ? At this stage, the answer was obvious. “I think so,” he said, grinning. “If he plays like that, there is no way he can lose.”

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