Over the last couple of decades, golf hasn’t been short on its share of prodigies. Expectations are through the roof for these players who impress on the biggest stage at a young age.
That flash in the pan moment typically leads to an ill-advised decision to turn pro before the player is really, truly ready.
Take for example Justin Rose. Sure, he’s one of the best players in the world now, but that wasn’t the case when he started out.
In 1998 at age 17, Rose qualified to play in the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale. The world fell in love with this baby-faced sensation that wowed us all throughout that week, but especially on the 72nd hole.
It was there that Rose dramatically holed out from the rough for a birdie to finish in a tie for fourth in the game’s oldest major.
The next day, he turned pro… and proceeded to miss the cut in his first 21 consecutive starts as a professional on his way to becoming the youngest “journeyman” in the game’s history.
As noted, Rose turned it around, eventually establishing himself as a top-5 player in the world and became a major champion in 2013 at the U.S. Open.
That’s not always the case for young talents.
Take Ty Tryon, for instance. Remember him? In 2001, at age 16 years, 9 months, 7 days, Tryon became – at the time – the youngest player to make the cut in a PGA Tour event when he turned the trick at the Honda Classic (today, he’s the sixth youngest).
Inspired, or perhaps blinded, by his success at that tournament, Tryon went to the PGA Tour’s Qualifying School later that fall as a 17-year-old. He made it through all three grueling stages to become the youngest player in history to earn a PGA Tour card and signed a handsome endorsement deal with Callaway.
From there, well, things spiraled. All told, the once can’t-miss Tryon has teed it up in 32 PGA Tour events since 2001. In those events, he recorded one top-10 finish (a T10 in 2003 at Bay Hill) and missed the cut 24 times. He hasn’t played in a Tour event since 2011. He might be the oldest 30-year-old in golf.
All of that brings us to young Jordan Spieth.
The 21-year-old Texan has had a bubble that reads “superstar” hanging over his head for some time now. He left the University of Texas midway through his sophomore year at the age of 19 to turn professional and attempt the monumental task of gaining PGA Tour status through performance on sponsor exemptions.
The way that works, basically, is Spieth was a high-profile amateur, which made him attractive to tournament sponsors. He was also a proven winner on the world stage at the amateur level. With victories in the 2009 and 2011 U.S. Junior Amateurs, Spieth joined Tiger Woods as the only other player to win that event multiple times.
Also, in 2010, at age 17, Spieth accepted an exemption to play in his hometown Tour event, the HP Byron Nelson Championship. Through 54 holes, the high school student was tied for seventh place in his first PGA Tour start. He wound up finishing a respectable T21, which really put his name on the map.
Naturally, PGA Tour sponsors want potential up and coming stars in their respective fields. It draws fan interest and – furthermore – there’s the hope that if this young player pans out, he won’t forget who gave him a chance down the road. As a non-member of the Tour – which Spieth was to start 2013 – a player can receive up to seven sponsor exemptions.
Spieth’s first start on the PGA Tour as a pro came in the 2013 Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines. He missed the cut. In his next start a couple of weeks later he had a promising tie for 22nd at Pebble Beach.
A month later, in his third start, the floodgates opened. Spieth tied for second in the Puerto Rico Open. For players not otherwise exempt on the PGA Tour, a top-10 finish is rewarded with the option for the player to be added to the field the following week.
So, Spieth went to Innisbrook Resort in Palm Harbor, Fla., and tied for seventh in the Tampa Bay Championship. It was a $148,893 payday in Tampa, pushing Spieth to $521,893 in earnings on the PGA Tour in 2013. He needed $101,295 to earn as much as the 150th finisher on the 2012 money list. By doing so, he became a Special Temporary Member, meaning unlimited sponsor exemptions for the rest of the year. He would have been limited to those seven exemptions otherwise.
And, boy, did Spieth ever take advantage of his new status. He would record another seven top-10 finishes in 2013, including his first victory at the John Deere Classic, as well as runner-up finishes in the Wyndham Championship and the Tour Championship.
His win at the John Deere also provided a signature moment for Spieth. Remember this bunker shot that earned him a spot in the playoff on the 72nd hole?
He was the easy choice for PGA Tour Rookie of the Year and was also selected as a Captain’s Pick by Fred Couples for that year’s Presidents Cup.
All things considered, it couldn’t have been a better start for Spieth.
Understandably, expectations were decidedly colossal for Spieth going into the 2013-14 PGA Tour season.
Some wondered though, were we in for a sophomore slump? Spieth proved quickly that unlike the young Justin Rose or Ty Tryon before him, this was no fluke. He was – and is – a special kind of player.
Spieth had four top-10 finishes in the new season… before the Masters, where he would tie for second. A month later, Spieth tied for fourth at the Players Championship.
With a tie for seventh in his title defense at the John Deere and a tie for eighth at the Barclays at the BMW Championship, Spieth – who secured an automatic spot on the U.S. Ryder Cup team – ended the season with an impressive eight top-10 finishes.
But, the critics wanted to know: where are the victories? How come this guy isn’t closing out tournaments?
Fair criticism or not – come on, he’s only 21! – that’s the life a prodigy leads. Top 10s aren’t good enough. We want wins.
For Spieth, despite an impressive season, there were no wins. He was one of the few bright spots for the U.S. Ryder Cup team, compiling a 2-1-1 record in the team’s 16 ½-11 ½ defeat.
Established now as a world-class player, however, opportunity knocks all over the globe.
As it was, Spieth found himself in Australia at the end of November to play in the prestigious Australian Open.
In his first trip to Oz, Spieth romped to a six-shot victory over a field that included Adam Scott and Rory McIlroy.
McIlroy, the world’s No. 1-ranked player, was so impressed with Spieth’s final-round, 8-under 63 – the best round that day by a whopping four shots – it prompted this tweet:
To celebrate the win, Spieth boarded a plane and traveled nearly 9,500 miles to Orlando to play in the Hero World Challenge at Isleworth – otherwise known as “Tiger’s Tournament.”
The Hero World Challenge field is a short one – just 18 players. However, it included 10 of the top-15 players in the world.
It would have been understandable if Spieth had a hangover from his Australia victory and the hop to another continent.
It wouldn’t have been acceptable for Spieth, though.
The young man who harsh critics have labeled “the great player who can’t close” looked to be playing a different, much easier course than the rest of the field.
Spieth put an exclamation point on a sensational sophomore season with a mind-blowing, tournament-record 10-stroke victory. His worst round of the week was a 5-under 67. It wasn’t simply a win. It was obliteration.
"The confidence from the last two weeks will help me going forward," Spieth said after the win. "Rory (McIlroy) is the guy I'm chasing. He has four majors, is just 24, and he's setting the bar. I did a good job of starting that chase the past two weeks. But a lot of hard work is still needed."
Spieth will now take a well-earned six-week break before we see him again. And, we can’t wait to see him again. Especially with his sights set on McIlroy and the majors.
It’s often noted by analysts that Spieth isn’t exceptional at anything in particular and the stats, surprisingly, support that: He was 90th in driving distance in 2014, 137th in driving accuracy, 150th in total driving and 122nd in greens in regulation.
However, there’s no stat or barometer for heart and desire to win.
If those were measured stats, the No. 9-ranked player in the world would be right near the top.