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Jesuit's Spieth cool under pressure

5/18/2010

This story was first published for ESPN RISE on March 2, 2010. Jordan Speith, a 16-year-old at Dallas Jesuit, was given a sponsor's exemption to play in the HP Byron Nelson Championship this week

The U.S. Junior Amateur is arguably the most grueling junior golf tournament in the world.

The six-day event begins with two rounds of stroke play to narrow an international field of players down to 64. That's followed by six rounds of single-elimination match play (including a 36-hole final) to crown the champion. The player who walks away with the title will have played nine rounds in less than a week, six of those coming over the final three days.

It's an event that leaves competitors physically spent and mentally exhausted. It takes a sharp game to defeat the world's best junior golfers, but it takes an even sharper mind to block out the pressure inherent in an event of that magnitude.

Jordan Spieth's coolness under pressure enabled him to take home the title at the 2009 U.S. Junior Amateur at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J.

He finished first in the stroke play portion of the event by shooting 6-under par, and he went on to defeat California's Jay Hwang, 4 & 3, in the final.

"You can't let down," says Spieth of playing in the Junior Am. "You have to go out there making the other kid think he can't beat you. It's all about whether you can control the nerves."

Spieth learned that lesson the hard way at the 2008 Junior Am.

He played well enough to reach the match play semifinals but admits that's when the pressure got to him. Rather than focusing on his game, he got caught up in the sudden realization that he was playing in a prestigious tournament against elite competitors.

Virginia's Evan Beck ended Spieth's run in the semis with a 1-up triumph.

"I wanted to win, but at the same time I saw all the TV cameras and I was like, 'Wow,'" Spieth says.

The setback proved to be a valuable experience, however, as it taught Spieth to stay in the moment regardless of the situation.

He put those lessons to use three months later at the 2008 PING Invitational in Stillwater, Okla. Spieth trailed Houston's Cory Whitsett, the 2007 Junior Am champ, by four strokes heading into the final round. But Spieth kept his nerve, posting five birdies on the front nine and finishing 4-under par for the round to beat Whitsett by two strokes for his first major AJGA win.

The victory gave him confidence heading into 2009.

"That one proved to me I could close the deal," says Spieth, named the 2009 Rolex Junior Player of the Year.

That's why he didn't get frazzled at last spring's Class 5A state championship when he was six strokes back after the first day of the two-day event. Despite the big deficit, Spieth knew he could come back.

In Round 2, he went out and dominated with a 7-under-par round of 65 to capture the individual crown by a stroke. He finished 5-under par for the tournament.

The victory was sweet redemption for Spieth, who had finished eight shots back of Whitsett at state as a freshman.

"He has a great determination to succeed, and that helps overcome whatever start he has to get the job done," says Jesuit head coach Cathy Marino, who played at SMU and in the LPGA.

Marino has witnessed many of Spieth's clutch performances.

When Spieth was a freshman, he overcame a six-shot deficit at the district tournament by shooting a 29 on the back nine, which was capped by a 40-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole to force a playoff. He then made birdie on the first playoff hole to win.
He followed that by winning in a playoff at the regional tournament.

"He's got a unique ability to keep his focus and not get distracted by his environment," says Spieth's father, Shawn.

"When you're in it and you get that chance to win, you get that adrenaline," adds Spieth, who was considering scholarship offers from Texas, Oklahoma State, USC, UCLA and Stanford at press time. "You get that in other sports, but it's so quick. It takes a while between shots and you have so much going through your head that you have to put out of your mind when you swing. You have to be able to control your emotions for two to three hours at a time."

Spieth credits his top-notch mental approach to his golf instructor, Cameron McCormick, whom Spieth has been working with since the summer heading into eighth grade.

Prior to that, Spieth had shown plenty of potential in golf, but he also competed in other sports such as baseball.

A couple months after winning the 12-year-old division title at the 2006 Starburst Junior Golf Classic in Waco, Spieth joined up with McCormick and decided to quit baseball for the links. McCormick transformed Spieth's swing in the first six weeks of instruction and also taught him to stay focused by taking time to think about each shot he was hitting.

The following spring, Spieth finished first at the AJGA's Junior All-Star event at Walnut Creek in Mansfield and then won the open division title at Starburst two months later.

"He's the best thing that's happened to Jordan as far as golf," says Spieth's mom, Chris, about McCormick.

Since joining up with his coach, Spieth has developed into the top-ranked junior golfer by playing every day and by training with his team and McCormick.

Always a strong putter, he now averages 290 yards on drives and is working on controlling the distance on his wedges.

This high school season, Spieth is focused on defending his individual state title and leading Jesuit to a team championship. He also has to deal with the pressure of having a target on his back because of his national rank.

"Just because you're No. 1 doesn't mean you're going to win every time," says Spieth. "You don't want to get caught up in it."

Based on how Spieth has dealt with pressure before, that doesn't sound like it will be a problem.