Spieth shows plenty of drive, if not much in wheels

Jordan Spieth during the 2014 Hyundai Tournament of Champions on the PGA Tour in Kapalua, Hawaii.

Jordan Spieth during the 2014 Hyundai Tournament of Champions on the PGA Tour in Kapalua, Hawaii.

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Jeff Rude’s “Hate To Be Rude” column appears on Golfweek.com on Wednesday.

• • •

There’s much to like about Jordan Spieth, golf prodigy and genuine article. That applies to more than the rare skill that has fueled one victory and four seconds in less than a full PGA Tour season. This is blue-moon stuff, for he is 20 and a year ago had no status after flaming out at Q-School second stage.

That was then, this is now, and now is a rich story, not just because he earned a reported $9.2 million via tournaments and endorsements last year. His compelling development bears long-time observation, not only because his ceiling seems to be the stars in St. Augustine, Fla., but also because of the classy manner in which he conducts business.

If Tiger Woods is golf’s Mozart, Spieth has a chance to develop into the game’s Beethoven. At once your author likes and loathes that splashy sentence – the latter because golf is harshly fickle and its forest is littered with can’t-miss kids who did, for whatever reasons, or suffered slumps like Rory McIlroy’s of 2013.

But when you are the only teenager to win on Tour in 82 years, when you are the only player besides Tiger Woods to win multiple U.S. Juniors, you have the skill set to conquer. Yet what makes the Spieth saga more appealing is that he seems unaffected by his uncommon success, by that recently departed dream season, by the capital at his feet.

One glaring exhibit of his groundedness is his car. Spieth drives the same vehicle he did in high school. It is a black 2007 GMC Yukon with more than 110,000 miles. You can maybe spot it from a wedge distance away because tape covers a cracked taillight. And there’s a chance it’s dirty, for he showed up for a recent photo shoot having not had it washed in three months.

“It’s really bad,” said Alex Moon, Spieth’s current roommate in a Dallas townhome and former Texas teammate. “The tape is holding the taillight in.”

Despite in effect winning golf’s lottery last year, Spieth has not splurged. He says he doesn’t spend money, that he doesn’t understand the high stack he has accumulated, that he’s “very conservative” with investments.

It follows that his offseason purchases didn’t go much past that new residence. “I think he might have gotten a couple more polo button-downs, that’s about it,” Moon said.

Had a player in one of the major team sports cashed in like Spieth, he might have multiple fancy cars by now. But this particular athlete, though he’s considering new wheels, apparently is focused on golf course grass and not road pavement. That was apparent again last week when he finished second at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions.

“I think it says he’s focused and not too worried about material things,” Moon said. “Where he’s at now, I don’t think material stuff is that important. He’s well grounded.”

So much so that last week Spieth said that, as a show of gratitude, he plans to play tournaments that granted him sponsor exemptions.

“He’s a realist more than idealist,” said Cameron McCormick, Spieth’s instructor for years. “The expression I think you can use is that, How you do anything is how you do everything.”

Such nature stems from a strong family upbringing under well-adjusted, athletic parents. One significant influence is sister Ellie, 12, a special-needs child with an undiagnosed neurological disorder and the mental capacity of a 5-year-old. Spieth calls her a “blessing” who provides him with constant perspective.

On top of familial guidance, the likes of Moon and caddie Mike Greller pledge that they won’t allow Spieth’s ego to become dysfunctionally large.

“Part of that is my job,” said Moon, 3 1/2 years older and a professional golfer headed to PGA Tour Latinoamerica Q-School. “If there’s ever a comment, I’ll let him know. He likes that. He needs somebody to keep him grounded and let him know he’s 20 and has a lot to learn.”

The two spend much time together playing golf for a few bucks, sharing dinners, goofing around and generally having fun. So Moon has a clear idea of why Spieth is so good at golf. In a word, belief.

“He’s one of the most confident people I know,” Moon said. “Not in the sense of cocky. When he’s over a shot he knows he’s going to hit a good one. He’s never questioning what he’s going to do.”

Before heading to Hawaii for a fortnight that includes this week’s Sony Open, Spieth made minor tweaks on his game with McCormick. They focused on grip and loading his backswing in an effort to refine his draw and flatten a downswing that through 2013 developed some over-the-top tendency. And they zoomed in on 2014, not last year’s success.

“It’s not about what happened in the past,” McCormick said. “It’s about looking in the front windshield. As you take that approach when planning, it provides a mechanism that lets you deal with what’s ahead and not get caught up in gloating.”

But then who needs to brag when others do it for you. Matt Kuchar, the Tour cash cow who specializes in top-10 finishes, came away impressed after playing with Spieth last week at Kapalua, a course not easy to master as a first-timer.

“I didn’t realize how long he hit it,” Kuchar said Wednesday. “He was hitting it a lot farther than me that day. The way he drives and putts it, that’s a great combination. His ceiling is awfully high.”

Just like, well, his car mileage.

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