Inspired by Tiger Woods, rookie J.J. Spaun makes early move on PGA Tour

By Doug Ferguson
Published on
Inspired by Tiger Woods, rookie J.J. Spaun makes early move on PGA Tour

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. (AP) — J.J. Spaun remembers the red sweater, the 4-foot putt and the uppercut from Tiger Woods when he won the 1997 Masters.

Spaun was 6 years old.

"He inspired me," Spaun said. "He inspired all of us from my generation to compete and be the best."

That explains why Spaun was nervous two weeks ago at Torrey Pines. The PGA Tour rookie who grew up in the Los Angeles area was sick when he arrived at the Farmers Insurance Open and had to rest on Monday. He played the South Course on Tuesday and because he wasn't in the pro-am, he walked the North Course with his caddie.

When they got to the 14th hole, they noticed a huge crowd.

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"I was like, 'Oh, that's Tiger. Let's stay out of the way,'" Spaun said.

That would have worked except that he ran into Amy Bartlett, who works at Nike and told him to stick around so he could meet Woods.

"I said,' No, no, no, no. I'm not meeting him.' I was too scared. And I didn't want to bug him," Spaun said. "We were on 15 and he hits his tee ball. Amy gets his attention and says 'I want you to meet a fellow Nike guy who grew up in LA.' It was cool. We talked about the Rams, sports, where I went to school. He was really open, easy to get along with. It was totally not what I expected. I didn't think he would be that welcoming to a rookie.

"He made me feel like I belonged out there," he said. "It inspired me to play well. I wanted to play good to have a chance to play with him on the weekend."

Spaun did his part.

He played so well that he was one shot behind Jon Rahm going into the final hole on Sunday when he made a careless mistake, hit the high side of the green and saw his ball spin back into the water, leading to a double bogey.

The difference between a birdie and a double bogey turned out to be $556,100. It was Spaun's best finish on tour, yet he walked away frustrated until his coach and manager reminded him that a top 10 finish (he tied for ninth) at least got him into the Phoenix Open.

Spaun was right back to work, closing with a 67 to tie for fourth. He finished two shots out of the playoff won by Hideki Matsuyama.

The rookie from San Diego State who spent five years working his way to the big leagues is on a roll going into Pebble Beach, coming off back-to-back top 10s. He needs one more to assure a spot at Riviera next week, his hometown tournament. He played it last year on the Charlie Sifford exemption.

And he can only hope Woods will be there in a playing capacity. Woods' foundation now runs the Genesis Open. Woods, who missed the cut at Torrey Pines, withdrew after one round in Dubai with back spasms.

"I'm pulling for him hard," Spaun said.

US OPEN PRIZE MONEY: Two years after the USGA signed its megadeal with Fox Sports at just under $100 million a year, it is finally sharing that with the players.

USGA executive director Mike Davis said at the annual meeting last week that the U.S. Open purse would be $12 million this year at Erin Hills, a $2 million increase from the previous two years.

That would make the U.S. Open the richest purse in golf — with $2.16 million for the winner — though that depends on what The Players Championship chooses to do. The Players last year had the largest purse at $10.5 million.

The USGA also is raising the U.S. Women's Open purse to $5 million. The next largest purse in women's golf is the KPMG Women's PGA Championship at $3.5 million.

The U.S. Senior Open and the U.S. Senior Women's Open (which doesn't start until 2018) will go up to $4 million.

MIXED TOURNAMENT: PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan described as "realistic" the chance for PGA and LPGA winners competing at Kapalua at the same time, though that's contingent on finding the right sponsor.

That's already happening this week in Australia.

The Oates Vic Open starts Thursday at Thirteenth Beach Golf Links, just beyond Port Phillips Bay near Geelong. It's a PGA Tour of Australasia event for the men, and it's co-sanctioned by Australian Ladies Professional Golf and the Ladies European Tour for the women.

The prize money has been increased to about $840,000 (1.1 million in Australian dollars) that will be split evenly among men and women.

Among the men competing are Robert Allenby, Stephen Leaney, Jarrod Lyle and Peter O'Malley. The women's field includes Laura Davies, Sandra Gal, Nelly Korda, Lorie Kane, Aditi Ashok of India and Australia's two Olympians, Minjee Lee and Su Oh.

As for Kapalua, Monahan said he was talking with the LPGA Tour and "there's a reasonable chance" it could happen.

"It could happen as early as 2018 or it could take longer, but when we announced a partnership with the LPGA, this is one of many things that we've identified to really lift both tours and to be fairly dynamic in the way we're presenting our tours," Monahan said.

KISNER AND PEBBLE: The power of friendship is stronger than the disdain of poa, which explains why Kevin Kisner is at Pebble Beach this year.

Kisner doesn't get along with the poa annua grass on the California greens, which is why he would prefer to be home in Aiken, South Carolina, when the PGA Tour stops in places like Torrey Pines, Pebble Beach and Riviera.

He's also good friends with Charles Kelley, a singer for the country group Lady Antebellum. Kelley asked him last year if he would consider being his partner in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, and Kisner agreed.

"I figured instead of taking a month off, I'd come have fun with him," Kisner said.

He has played Torrey Pines three times without making the cut. In four previous trips to Pebble Beach, he has twice missed the cut, tied for 39th and tied for 64.

But he does have a trophy from Pebble, winning the unofficial Callaway Invitational in 2013.

"That was more my tempo — golf carts and beer," Kisner said.

He's looking at this week as a chance to have fun and play golf, without worrying too much about which way the ball bounces on the bumpy greens.

"The mindset going in is that when I leave on Sunday, it will be a successful week if I don't think I'm the worst putter on tour," he said.

JONES AWARD: Bob Ford, the longtime professional at Oakmont Country Club and Seminole Golf Club, has been selected to receive the Bob Jones Award. The award is the highest honor from the USGA and is presented to individuals who demonstrate the spirit, character and respect for the game exhibited by Jones.

Ford retired from Oakmont after 37 years and still works at Seminole in south Florida. He is the first club pro to win the award.

"Being selected as the first PGA club professional to win the award makes it ever more special," Ford said. "I'm not so sure I belong in the company of former recipients, but nonetheless I'm very flattered and humbled. Bob Jones has impacted all the lives of those who serve and play this great game. Arnold and Jack were his friends and hold him in the highest regard and they both have handed the game down to my generation as Bob Jones did for them."

DIVOTS: Kevin Hall, the former Ohio State golfer who is deaf, has been awarded the Charlie Sifford Memorial exemption to play at Riviera next week in the Genesis Open. ... Lydia Ko, who left David Leadbetter after three years, has decided to work with Gary Gilchrist. The South African swing coach also works with Ariya Jutanugarn and Shanshan Feng. ... Diana Murphy was elected to another one-year term as USGA president at the annual meeting last week. ... John Paramor, chief referee on the European Tour, has been awarded the Christer Lindberg Bowl for his contributions to golf.

STAT OF THE WEEK: There were 42 players in their 20s who finished in the top 125 last year on the PGA Tour, up from 31 players 10 years ago.

FINAL WORD: "I would see him as a guy that would appreciate that kind of respect. I think he would find it worse if he came out here and nobody cared." — Thomas Bjorn on the reception Tiger Woods gets from other players.

This article was written by Doug Ferguson from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.