May 14, 2014

Spieth makes smooth transition from HS invitee to Nelson headliner

Winning the Byron Nelson Championship would be the fulfillment of a boyhood wish for Dallas’ Jordan Spieth.

The signature attraction at the HP Byron Nelson Championship reflected Wednesday on his four-year journey from amateur invitee to gallery favorite and endorsement partner with next year’s title sponsor, AT&T, at his hometown PGA Tour stop.

“It seems like it was … a different life almost. There’s been a lot that’s gone on in my golf life since then,” said Jordan Spieth, 20, when asked how much things have changed since his 16th-place finish as a 16-year-old making his tour debut at the 2010 Nelson. “I was working out this morning and on the TV, it showed a flashback from 2010. I looked like I was 9 years old. It was funny.”

Spieth’s self-deprecating response drew laughter from media members at the Four Seasons Resort, where the Dallas native ranks among the favorites to win a $6.9 million event that has drawn 10 of the world’s top-30 golfers for Thursday’s opening round. If he can make the 2014 Nelson his second career triumph as a PGA Tour participant, Spieth said it would rank as a career highlight. Now and later.

“This is the tournament that I love probably the most, the dearest to my heart,” said Spieth, who regularly attended the event as a fan before making his Nelson debut during his junior year at Dallas Jesuit High School. “I’ll play it until I’m 70 if I can. If I can get out there and win this week, it would be special for me and for my family. This is a tournament I’ve always dreamt about winning.”

Spieth, the No. 8 player in the world golf rankings, has done just about everything except win a tournament in his second season as a tour participant. The 2013 PGA Tour Rookie of the Year has earned $3,171,423 this season, with six top-10 finishes in 14 starts. Included are runner-up finishes at the Masters and the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, as well as Sunday’s fourth-place finish at The Players Championship.

Keegan Bradley, the 2011 Nelson champion, expressed amazement at Spieth’s rapid development since the two were paired together in the final round at the TPC course on the day Bradley hoisted his Nelson hardware. Spieth, at the time, was a high school senior.

After helping lead Texas to an NCAA golf title in 2012, Spieth’s lone season of college golf, he has quickly adapted to the professional game. As of Wednesday, he now endorses AT&T and UnderArmour. Spieth also owns a 69.98 season scoring average.

“He’s a world-class player, one of the best players in the world,” Bradley said. “He’s going to win a lot and he’s going to be in contention a lot. I’m glad he is an American and he will be on [U.S.] Ryder Cup teams. I would love to be his partner.”

Bradley, 27, might get that opportunity as early as this year. Both golfers are tracking toward berths on the 2014 U.S. team that will be finalized in August. For Spieth, who has yet to play in the event, earning a Ryder Cup berth ranks among his primary season goals. The top nine finishers in the U.S. points standings make the squad.

“It’s very high on my radar,” said Spieth, who ranks fourth among U.S. candidates with 3,988 points. “I want to earn my way on the team. That’s why I put such an emphasis on the majors this year, because they’re weighted heavily [with Ryder Cup points]. I got off to a good start in the first one.”

No doubt. Spieth narrowly missed becoming the youngest Masters champion in history when he tied for second, three strokes behind winner Bubba Watson, in Spieth’s debut at Augusta National Golf Club. Because of his meteoric rise in the world golf rankings in the past year, Spieth is viewed by many as the game’s next superstar.

Asked Wednesday if he considered that a burden or a compliment, Spieth said: “I don’t view it as either one. I don’t even hear it. … That kind of talk, it doesn’t do any good to pay attention either way.”

Spieth stressed that his Sunday shortcomings in two high-profile events in the past month (Masters, The Players) will not impact his psyche during Nelson week. He vowed that he will not press in efforts to secure his second tour triumph of his brief career despite being the biggest gallery draw in Irving.

“That’s something that, in a couple of events last year and a couple of events early this year, was solely responsible for me not quite pulling it off,” Spieth said. “I was wanting it too bad instead of just playing my game and letting it happen. The last few events where I’ve come close, I haven’t been pressing. The more I get into that position, the more I feel comfortable. If I put myself in position enough times, it will happen.”

Ideally, Spieth would like that to happen Sunday in Irving. Even if it does not, six-time tour winner Dustin Johnson predicted that Spieth’s next triumph is coming. Soon.

“I’ve played a good bit with Jordan,” Johnson said. “Obviously, he’s a very talented young player and he’s had a good season so far. He’s going to have a lot more opportunities [to win]. He’s a really good driver of the golf ball. He’s fairly long and he drives it really straight. He has a pretty good short game, too. That’s going to equate to shooting good scores.”

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