Pomp & circumstance for Jordan Spieth
Senior hopes high school graduation takes backseat during Byron Nelson Championship
DALLAS -- Some things have changed in Jordan Spieth's life since the Dallas teenager surprised the golf world a year ago by not only making the cut at the HP Byron Nelson Championship, but racing up the leaderboard before faltering a bit on the back nine on Sunday.
Spieth, now 17, isn't the same lanky kid who looked like he might have trouble keeping his balance in a strong Texas wind. He's added 20 pounds of muscle, putting down his clubs for a few months over the winter to bulk up in an attempt to guard against future injuries (his back has bothered him a little at times) and give him more length on the course.
His goals have changed, too. He's not trying to be the top junior golfer in the country now. No, Spieth is headed to college and wants to become the top amateur golfer in the nation. That means playing in more amateur events and setting his sights on the Walker Cup, his main golf goal for this season.
Spieth also is no longer dating the girl who followed him during the Nelson last year. He's coy about his social life now, saying he's not "officially" dating anyone. Oh, and the long, blond hair that spilled out from the white University of Texas cap he wore last year is a lot shorter now.
"I lost a bet and had to shave most of it," said Spieth, who was busy preparing for the UIL state high school tournament and the Nelson earlier this month at Brookhaven Country Club in Dallas. "I was playing with some friends, and I didn't think one of them could get it up and down. He hit the two best shots of his career."
No word on whether all that hair will be back in place before the cameras find him at another PGA Tour event this week. But there is one reminder that Spieth is still in high school: Graduation from Dallas Jesuit is at 4 p.m. Saturday, creating a possible scheduling conflict.
"I hope it's a problem because that means I'm playing enough to make the cut and maybe be in contention," Spieth said. "I'll rush over there when I can. My last name starts with 'S,' so you never know."
One thing that hasn't changed from the 16-year-old junior to the 17-year-old senior is his confidence.
"Last year, I said there was no reason to enter a tournament and say, 'I'd like to get 40th,'" Spieth said. "I still feel that way now. I don't think anybody thinks that way. I want to give it a run again and hopefully a little better chance this year."
Spieth had a 10-foot birdie putt on No. 11 on Sunday afternoon last year to get within two shots of the lead at the Nelson, but it slipped past the hole. He bogeyed the 13th hole, a par-3, and then double-bogeyed No. 15, ending his hopes for an unlikely victory. He finished in the top 20 and left fans cheering as he attacked the dangerous pin over the water on the par-3 17th.
"There were people going crazy on that hole," Spieth said. "It was fun. It helped to have my friends there. I was able to walk next to them and talk to them on some holes. Last year was fun because it wasn't too intense. I was comfortable."
Spieth didn't really show his nerves until that final day, and his parents marveled at their son's ability to handle the pressure of a PGA Tour event that included cameras following his every move and a gallery that got larger every day he played.
"We learned Jordan was closer to being ready to compete at the top level than any of us really knew," said Jordan's dad, Shawn. "We knew he was a great competitor who had had success in big events, but the Nelson was much bigger, being his first pro tournament, along with a lot of media, community excitement, school and other commitments that week. He handled it all as well as we could have ever expected."
Spieth returns believing he's improved on and off the course. He won't have the distraction of finals, as he completed those earlier in the month. He's had time to hone his craft for the tournament, playing the course a few times in preparation.
"I feel like I'm better than last year," Spieth said. "I was proud of the way I handled things last year with the pressure of it all, but I didn't finish in the top 10, so part of me feels it was a disappointment. But I'm hitting it further than last year. I'm in a big short-game phase to nail that part down."
In other words, Spieth feels good about where his game is right now. Part of that is that he's driving the ball about 10 to 15 yards farther than he was a year ago. He gives credit to a workout regimen put together by Damon Goddard of Synergy Golf Fitness.
Spieth decided the best way to go about becoming longer was to commit to the workout and then go about tweaking his swing to adjust to his new body. He worked with longtime teacher Cameron McCormick to do that and decided not to compete in national events for a few months to get things in order.
He returned to some amateur events earlier this year and played well, posting some top-5s. He won the HP Boys Championship at Carlton Woods in Houston in February, one of the few American Junior Golf Association events he competed in during the past few months. Before that, he attended an invitational for 16 of the top amateur players in contention for spots on the Walker Cup in September.
"I want to make that team," Spieth said. "So how I play in the big amateur events, the Nelson and U.S. Open qualifying, will make a difference."
Spieth said the lessons he learned competing with some of the top players in the world at last year's Nelson will help him this year and going forward in his career.
"That experience changed my demeanor on the course," Spieth said. "I went through so much pressure that I've never felt before during the Nelson. Since then, compared to that, the stress isn't as bad at other events. It's helped me stay calm and neutral on the course."
Spieth says playing with Blake Adams, who was at or near the lead most of the event, for the first few days helped him understand the importance of staying even-keeled.
"It was unbelievable how little that guy showed emotion good or bad," Spieth said. "He didn't even think about a shot after he hit it. It was over. He was a nice guy to everybody. I was shaking through the first nine holes. We get a three-hour rain delay, so that added to my anxiety. He was so calm and talking to me. When I played with Tom Pernice Jr., he was the nicest guy I played with out there. I know some people who know Mr. Pernice, and he's told them to tell me hello."
Spieth's manners haven't changed, either. He's still the polite kid who greets everyone with a firm handshake and treats his elders -- and nearly everyone inside the ropes falls into that category -- with respect.
But he will have someone his own age walking around with him. It won't be Spieth's caddie from last year, Kyle Baginski (called "Bags" by his friends). Spieth asked future Texas golf teammate Kramer Hickok, from Trinity Christian Academy, to caddie for him in this year's event.
"I wanted someone I'd played a lot with recently," Spieth said. "But if Kramer qualifies for the Nelson [on Monday], Bags is getting the call."
Spieth expects Baginski to attend part of the tournament, walking around with a large contingent from Jesuit.
"It could be even more students than last year because the seniors will be done," Spieth said. "That will be fun. I know there's going to be higher expectations. I'm going to ignore everything, prepare for the tournament and go after it."
Richard Durrett covers golf for ESPNDallas.com.