Long before Jordan Spieth was burdened by constant attention, he had acquainted himself with lofty ambition.
On YouTube, a 2008 video exists of a 14-year-old Spieth outlining his golfing plans. “My ultimate goal is to win the Masters,” says the skinny teenager. Skip forward to December 2012 and footage appears of Spieth explaining his decision to leave the University of Texas only 18 months into a four-year degree to embark on a career in professional golf. At that juncture, he was ranked as the eighth best amateur player in the world. “I had to feel ready to be out there on my own,” Spieth explains. “I have made that decision, I am comfortable with it, I am ready to go.”
John Fields, the university’s golf coach, asserted that Spieth would be “an extremely successful professional golfer”. Spieth had been part of a university team which claimed the national championship for the first time since 1972. Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite are other members of the university’s famous golfing alumni. Amateur success, though, is a guarantee of nothing. In the early 1970s a Floridian named Eddie Pearce was heralded as the new Jack Nicklaus. Pearce made no inroads at all on the professional game and ended up selling cars for a living.
Spieth’s story is somewhat different. In 2013, victory at the John Deere Classic made him the first teenager to win on the PGA Tour since 1931. He was already diverting prize monies into shares and investments. Whereas his former college classmates are in the midst of graduation, Spieth has amassed more than $16m in on-course earnings. He is a back-to-back major champion and the golfer whom – inevitable glances towards Tiger Woods aside – the eyes of the world will be upon during the Open at St Andrews starting on Thursday.
Spieth’s main sponsor, Under Armour, smartly secured its marquee golfing athlete on a new, 10-year contract this January, before he prevailed at both the Masters and US Open. Now, he is in a different commercial stratosphere.
“Jordan is a special guy,” said Under Armour’s chief executive, Kevin Plank. “He’s going to win a lot of golf tournaments and that’s going to end up costing us a lot of money at some level but I’d say it’ll probably be some of the best money we ever spent.”
Spieth is a sponsor’s dream. Clean cut, Bible-observing and without a hint of controversy, the 21-year-old is even still in a relationship with his high-school girlfriend, Annie Verret. In short, he is the ideal American sporting pin-up. A junior Phil Mickelson, if you like. Maturity is the aspect of Spieth’s character that instantly hits anybody who spends time in his company. Spieth’s rocket-fuelled progress has clearly been beyond even his own wildest dreams and yet his ability to at least compete on the PGA Tour and refusal to buckle in illustrious or senior company was not a complete shock.
Spieth had, after all, joined Woods as the only two-times winner of the US Junior Amateur Championship. Spieth played in the 2010 Byron Nelson Championship as a 16-year-old, where he not only survived for the weekend but finished in 16th place. “He wasn’t playing in the tournament to make the cut,” said Spieth’s mother, Chris. “He was playing to see his name at the top of the leaderboard. That’s how he plays every tournament. He’s got a lot of confidence.”
A large chunk of Spieth’s back story is well known, such as the inspiration offered by his autistic younger sister, Ellie, who would receive a gift from her brother when he returned to Texas from any given tournament. Spieth’s caddie, Michael Greller, worked as a maths teacher before taking a sabbatical which has been extended to the level where he is a millionaire in his own right.
Spieth’s parents were both college athletes. Chris played basketball while Jordan’s father, Shawn, was a baseball pitcher. Steven, Spieth’s highly academic brother, will not continue his own basketball career into the professional scene but, again, represents his college with distinction.
Spieth himself was never pigeonholed as a golfer early on, an interesting antidote to coaches who insist upon hour after hour of sporting specialisation for promising youngsters. “We did not raise our kids to be one-sport athletes,” Chris explained. “You have to let them explore options. You have to make sure they know that life is more than one sport or one goal.”
To this end, Spieth was a pitcher, quarterback and point guard as well as golfing prodigy. Being part of a team, his mother and father recognised, was just as valuable as individual pursuits. The element of selfishness, which is an attribute rather than a negative for top-level golfers, could come later.
When attending the White House as part of a victorious Presidents Cup team, Spieth was picked upon playfully by Barack Obama. “Spieth told me this is the first suit he has ever bought,” said the President of his youngest guest. At the last Ryder Cup, Spieth and Patrick Reed were the only shining American lights in what was otherwise an unmitigated Gleneagles disaster.
Spieth claims he is “humbled and honoured” to now have the respect of players he once idolised. “I would have to say he’s a friend,” says Woods of Spieth. “I like Jordan a lot. I’ve watched his career. He’s got all the talent in the world. And it’s going to be fun to watch him grow and mature into the player that he will become.”
Spieth does not drive the ball further than any of his fellow golfers. His ability to win on such grand stages is an endearing aspect of a sport which too frequently is dominated by big hitters. His putting offers clear explanation for that, with Spieth’s talent for holing out the envy of world golf.
“I’ve played a lot more golf with Jordan recently than anybody else and I’ve just seen how solid he is,” says Justin Rose. “I think that he’s going to do very well at St Andrews because a good shot at St Andrews – it’s often 20, 30ft away, especially if they tuck the pins [away].
“Obviously, you can never use backspin to get the ball close at St Andrews or any links course. In my opinion, 20, 30ft, that’s where you’re going to have putts and that’s where he’s at his best. He knocks in more 20, 30-footers than anybody on tour.”
Spieth has another advantage, on account of a Dallas upbringing. A Scottish breeze will not so much trouble the man seeking to join only Ben Hogan in the history books by winning the first three majors of a calendar year, as feel natural. “The more you look at the big picture of things, the more weight there is on it,” says Spieth. “To have an opportunity to get to a level where you would only include one name, and that’s Ben Hogan, that would be pretty cool. There’s an opportunity to actually be in a different category in a single season.”
Needless to say, the 14-year-old Spieth did not foresee this. Regardless of events on the Old Course this week, he has surpassed the stuff of dreams.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010