Jordan Spieth adjusts to the stage
Confident Jesuit senior graduates from junior novelty to true contender at Byron Nelson
IRVING, Texas -- Jordan Spieth made it his mission Friday to create a conflict with his high school graduation.
You see, Jesuit College Preparatory School will present diplomas to its 250 or so graduates at 4 p.m. CT Saturday, just about the time Spieth, a 17-year-old senior, will be on the back nine, hoping to vault his way up the HP Byron Nelson Championship leaderboard on what is traditionally "moving day" on the PGA Tour.
"I'll try to get over there after my round, and my name starts with 'S,' so you never know," Spieth said. "But I was hoping this would be a problem."
"I want to win," said Spieth, now a veteran of the Nelson media interview room. "I don't care what everyone else says; I look at the leaderboard and I see 8-under. Ryan Palmer posted a ridiculous round again today. I think I can catch him."
If Spieth can't make his graduation, he'll get his diploma next week in a small ceremony for his family at the school with everyone in the proper attire. But in a real sense, this weekend might look like a graduation of sorts, just with a golf shirt and Titleist hat instead of a cap and gown.
Spieth is clearly no longer just a solid junior golfer hoping to gain experience inside the ropes at a PGA Tour event. That might have been the case a little last year, but Spieth has bulked up since then, fine-tuned his skills and brought with him a putter that acts like a magic wand straight out of a Harry Potter novel -- he leads in average putts per round after two rounds at 24.
The result is a 17-year-old playing golf at about 10 years above his age. He's essentially another "young gun" out here trying to outmaneuver the golf course with power and precision. "He had another year of what I'd call 'stressing his system' to the point where his ability to cope with the big stages and the knowledge that he can compete in those situations has helped him become a better player," said his golf instructor, Cameron McCormick, who has coached him since he was 12. "Yesterday, he got off to that rough start, and some players might crumble under that weight of expectations and pressure. But he was able to steady himself.
"As he becomes more comfortable playing on this stage, his ability to chisel those rounds will become easier. He's just been refining his game. He looks like he belongs."
Jordan Spieth's performance by round at last year's Byron Nelson:
|Round||Pos. (Shots behind leader)|
|Rd. 1||T-17 (2)|
|Rd. 2||T-22 (7)|
|Rd. 3||T-7 (6)|
|Rd. 4||T-16 (6)|
But you get the sense from his body language and demeanor that this year he knows he can win.
"I think he's just as confident this year, maybe even more confident," said Jordan's younger brother Steven, who just finished his sophomore year at Jesuit and starts on the varsity basketball team. "I know he knows he can win, and everybody that watched him today knows it, too."
They were at least 300 to 400 strong by the time Jordan Spieth finished, the crowd growing with every hole. Many of them wore the blue and gold of Jesuit since school was out except for those who had makeup exams. That included several teachers and priests.
"It's great to be out here," said 33-year-old Robert Murphy, who is in seminary at Jesuit. "He's a good student and a nice young man. I came out to support him as he uses his gifts."
The fans were loud and supportive, and Spieth fed off them, giving a quick fist pump when birdie putts dropped and waving after hitting irons close to the hole.
"It was awesome to have so many people out there supporting me," Spieth said. "I talked to some of them and laughed when they yelled things. It was fun to drop some putts and make it loud out there."
It was as if Spieth was drawing a Tiger-like gallery and his playing partners weren't able to block it out. Bobby Gates, who played at Texas A&M, and Daniel Summerhays each shot 82 on Friday and won't be around when Spieth tees it up Saturday.
Spieth is one more example of a young player not intimidated by the surroundings or anyone in particular on the leaderboard.
What If Spieth Wins?
The 17-year-old amateur would have some decisions to make. He can't accept membership to the PGA Tour until he turns 18, which is at the end of July. He would have 60 days after that date to decide whether he wants to turn professional and take the two-year exemption that would come with the win.
A victory also would get him into some events in 2011 and 2012, including the PGA Championship and the Masters, no matter whether he turns pro. Here's the full list:
"This is the first group of kids that Tiger just hasn't killed them," Oglivie said. "Tiger, I don't know if he's on the downside of his career, but he's not played well for three years. Unlike my generation, who's used to getting their brains beat in by Tiger, they're not used to it. They played with Rickie Fowler and they think, 'Rickie's not that much more impressive than I am, so let's go do it.'"
It's that firm belief that had Spieth walking off the course a little disappointed Friday, feeling as if he left some shots on the course. He climbed in a van filled with family and friends and took some good-hearted ribbing, just one more way he can stay grounded.
"You coming to my basketball tournament at 9 tomorrow morning?" Steven asked his older brother. "I watched you today."
Jordan smirked. And then began a self-assessment of his round, lamenting the fact that he was 2-over on the final five holes, which included a 5-foot miss for birdie on the par-5 seventh and a bogey on his final hole. Spieth admitted he could have hit a lob wedge to the middle of the green at No. 9 with the pin on the right side.
"But I wanted the birdie," Spieth said.
So he ended up just short and couldn't get up and down from a greenside bunker. But Spieth won't stop attacking the course. He was pelting drives all day and relying on that impressive putter to help him make birdies. It's a plan he'll use this weekend.
"The putter has never felt better in my hands," Spieth said. "My 8- to 10-foot birdies felt so comfortable. It just felt like we had the right reads, trusted it and they were pouring in the middle."
"He played nearly perfect golf that last round at state," said Cathy Marino, Jesuit's golf coach. "What he does so well is that when he gets into a situation that isn't good, he makes the right decisions. He shows very good maturity and keeps plugging. That allows him to put together good rounds even when things might not be completely right."
For the most part, things went right for Spieth on Friday, which means he probably won't make his graduation Saturday. But could it mean he's hoisting a trophy come Sunday? As his large crowd of supporters will tell you: Don't count him out.
Richard Durrett covers golf for ESPNDallas.com.