Spieth sharpens game, polishes star
Teen sensation's following, legend grow Saturday at HP Byron Nelson Championship
IRVING, Texas -- Brandon Walsh, a red-haired 14-year-old from Keller, sat just outside the ropes on No. 16 at the HP Byron Nelson Championship, sweating but smiling as Jordan Spieth walked up the fairway.
Asked who is favorite golfer was, Walsh didn't hesitate.
"It's Spieth," he said. "I was watching my brother play in a junior tournament and he wasn't playing well, so I went and found Jordan. He was really nice and is such a good golfer. He can play."
No doubt about that. Spieth's status as a 16-year-old golfing icon only swelled Saturday along with his gallery and standing on the leaderboard. Spieth shot 67, his third consecutive round under par. What began as a nice story of a young kid simply trying to make the cut with the big boys on the PGA Tour has morphed into the tale of a mature teenager trying to make a run for the victory Sunday.
"I guess I'm going against everyone's odds," Spieth said. "No one really expected me to make the cut, except for a few people. But you know what? I came out here to win a tournament, and I've got an outside chance."
Spieth doesn't plan on being conservative Sunday.
"I may get out there and I know the pins are going to be the toughest pins I've ever experienced in my life, but if I'm confident, I'm going to start firing because I've got nothing to lose, nothing to hold back," Spieth said. "I might as well try and make a run."
That's a luxury a 16-year-old who can't take home any money has over the rest of the field. In fact, he's tied for seventh (six strokes behind leader Jason Day) going into the final round. If the leaderboard looked the same after Sunday's play was over, Spieth would have taken home around $180,000.
"That would be a lot of money for me, too," said his caddie, former Jesuit Prep School teammate Kyle Baginski, nicknamed "Bags," who was thinking about the normal caddie rate of 10 percent of the winner's check.
But Spieth won't worry about that Sunday. And he won't be intimidated by the surroundings. Besides the anticipation of playing in his first PGA Tour event, Spieth has dealt with a nearly four-hour weather delay, an early wake-up call to finish his second round, numerous media appearances and cameras following his every move Saturday.
The one thing about playing national junior events -- and winning the U.S. Junior Amateur Championship last year -- is that Spieth has seen the cameras during his rounds. In fact, nearly everything he's done this week, including polished media interviews, makes it seem as if Spieth has been on the PGA Tour before.
One thing he hasn't done: Pick out a proper Sunday color for what will be his biggest final round to date. He said he won't wear red.
"I'll probably go with navy blue," said Spieth, possibly a nod to Jesuit's colors.
Even if Spieth doesn't wear Salesmanship Club red (it's not called Tiger red at the Nelson), the fearless teenager has already saved the 2010 Nelson. The tournament, which has no players in the top 10 of the world rankings, now has one major storyline.
Who would have figured that a 16-year-old who spent Friday night watching the movie "Anchorman" at his girlfriend's house would have the Nelson featured on SportsCenter and in local and national newspapers and websites?
But because of his success, the tournament is allowing anyone 16 years of age or younger to get in for free for Sunday's final round. Warning to the youngsters: It's already really crowded out here.
Spieth summoned roars from his large gallery usually reserved at this tournament for the late legend Byron Nelson or top players such as Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods.
"He's going to bring thousands and thousands of people out here to see the event, and you don't need Tiger or Phil always to have a great event," said Tom Pernice Jr., who played with Spieth on Saturday.
Spieth got the crowd into the round early, holing out of a bunker on No. 1 for birdie. He gave his caddie a high-five and marched quickly to the No. 2 tee, almost desperate to try to collect a few more birdies.
"When he made that first bunker shot, I thought he'd have a pretty good day," said Shawn Spieth, Jordan's father.
Spieth's parents both said Saturday they believe their son can win the tournament.
"It's a large mountain, but he's come back before," Chris Spieth said.
She remembers her son winning a junior event two years ago after falling behind by five going into the final round.
"He's not afraid to go low," said Cameron McCormick, his golf instructor. "He can use this crowd to help him."
Officials estimated that at least 2,000 fans followed Spieth's group all over the course. The decibel level of that group -- a polite, yet enthusiastic bunch -- went up when Spieth rolled in a 38-foot birdie putt on No. 12, That came after a deft bump-and-run with a 4-iron from under a tree to the second tier of the green.
"I went nuts," Spieth said. "I threw a big ol' fist pump, which I shouldn't be doing because I don't know how to."
He was cheered walking to every tee, and many fans lined the ropes hoping he'd shake their hands or smile at them on his way to the next hole. And Spieth obliged, clearly enjoying it. One fan even asked Spieth to sign his iPhone after the round.
"That was different," Spieth said. "I need a good start tomorrow to get the crowd behind me."
It was like a huge extended family reunion as Spieth walked his 18 holes at TPC Four Seasons Resort & Club on Saturday.
Many said they knew Spieth, even if the connection was extremely remote. One fan proclaimed proudly that a friend of his boss' wife was Spieth's high school golf coach. A high school golfer didn't hesitate to tell his friends that he was beaten soundly by Spieth in a tournament. Many fans said they were friends of his from school or neighbors who watched him grow up or members at Brookhaven, where he plays.
Some of them smiled at Spieth's father, Shawn, or mother, Chris. All of those fans walked around with a lot of pride.
"It's a big city, but it feels real small right now," Shawn Spieth said, grinning. "It feels really small."
In an interesting coincidence, Spieth, the youngest player in the field, played with Pernice, the oldest. Pernice is 50, three years older than Spieth's dad, actually. Spieth called him "Mr. Pernice" on the first tee.
"It was like playing a round with your dad, but a little more talented golfer than my dad," said Spieth, whose father admitted he's an 8 handicap but isn't playing golf worthy of that mark right now. "I don't call my friends' parents by their first name, so I was kind of going back and forth."
Pernice was quick to praise Spieth's parents -- "he's a wonderful young guy" -- and note that he has two daughters that are close to Spieth's age.
Pernice wasn't the only elder left with a good impression of the teenager. Kenny Perry, 49, played in the group ahead of Speith.
"When I was 16, I was playing high school golf, but nothing like him," Perry said. "Good for him and good for the game."
Spieth chatted briefly with Perry during a backup on the No. 7 tee. Perry asked if Spieth had eagled the first hole to create that roar.
"Real casual like he said, 'Nah, I just holed it out of the sand for birdie,'" Perry said.
But there's nothing casual about Spieth's golf tempo. He likes to play fast, and slowing himself down when play backs up is sometimes difficult.
"It seemed like his bad shots today were after we had to wait," said Baginski. "I told him to really focus on those shots."
After his fist-pumping birdie at No. 12, Spieth had to wait on the No. 13 tee. Pernice leaned on his bag, looking relaxed. Spieth paced back and forth, taking practice swings and looking anxious to get his tee in the ground and the shot in the air.
"That's why this is such a great learning experience for him," McCormick said. "He has to figure out how to channel those emotions and calm himself down. And he will."
Back to earth
Spieth's week will be over soon. He'll go back to Jesuit on Monday, trying to make up part of the eight days he's missed playing in the tournament he watched as a kid. Well, a younger kid anyway.
"When he goes back there, he'll be just a normal teenager," Chris Spieth said. "That's the great thing about Jesuit. His classmates will be happy for him, but he's just another student trying to make good grades."
Peggy Nelson watched Spieth tee off on No. 1 and talked about how impressed she was with him as he walked down the fairway on the opening hole.
"He's such a fine young man with a great family," Byron Nelson's widow said. "He's got a lot more experience than people think because he's played junior tournaments. He won the Nelson Junior twice. You can't help but pull for him."
As Spieth signed autographs just outside the scoring trailer near the 18th green, Paul Earnest, director of golf at the Four Seasons, smiled broadly.
"I wish Byron were here to see this," Earnest said. "He'd really be impressed with what he did today."