JOHN DEERE CLASSIC

Spieth blossoms as rising star in American golf

2014-07-07T05:30:00Z 2014-07-07T05:40:30Z Spieth blossoms as rising star in American golfMatt Coss mcoss@qctimes.com The Quad-City Times

Tiger Woods is approaching 40, has seen his body break down with a multitude of injuries the last six years and found the winner's circle just once in the past 13 months.

Phil Mickelson is 44, hasn't been a serious contender at a tournament yet this year, tumbled outside the world's top 10 and is the subject of an FBI insider-trading probe, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Woods and Mickelson have carried the torch for American golf the past two decades, but they appear to be on the back nine of their storied careers.

Golf enthusiasts and the PGA Tour are yearning for a young star, someone marketable, someone driven for success and someone who can relate with the younger demographic but also senior citizens.

Many believe Jordan Spieth, three weeks from his 21st birthday and set to defend this week at the John Deere Classic, has the talent and persona to fulfill that.

"I'm always looking forward to my ultimate goal, which when I set really young was to be the best player in the world," Spieth said. "I want to be No. 1 in the world. Until that happens and you're winning almost every time, there's always ways to improve."

Just like Woods and Mickelson, Spieth flourished as an amateur.

He won two United States Junior Amateurs, led Texas to an NCAA championship and was a first team all-American.

Since turning pro in December 2012, Spieth became the youngest winner on Tour in 82 years last July at TPC Deere Run, participated in the President's Cup, soared more than 800 spots in the world rankings and played in the final pairing on Sunday at this year's Masters.

"I think the average American is thinking this is the new guy," NBC golf commentator Johnny Miller said during this year's Players Championship. "This is the most exciting thing in golf right now. He has the 'it' factor. He gets it done, is the bottom line."

The JDC is Spieth's only professional victory thus far, but the Dallas native already owns 15 top-10 finishes, is 10th in the world rankings and made 35 of his last 42 cuts.

He's already made a favorable impression among his peers.

"I think he can be great," Woods said at a news conference this spring. "He has plenty of power and confidence and you can see how well he's been playing. Just give him time."

JDC serves as launching pad

More than 300 days after his victory at Deere Run, Spieth can recall nearly every detail from his final round 65.

At the tournament's media day last month, he referenced his rough Sunday range session where he struggled to keep the ball on the driving range due to pain in his left wrist.

Spieth recited what clubs he used on certain holes.

"Winning my first Tour event, that's just something that is going to stick with me," Spieth said. "Each moment was a dream come true. I felt like I was dreaming. Looking back, I didn't expect it until that bunker shot went in and I knew I was in a playoff."

The dramatic bunker shot, almost 45 feet in length, he holed at 18 in regulation will live in JDC infamy.

However, Spieth said there were two shots in particular that paved the way to his victory — a hybrid he hit to 6 feet to set up birdie at the par-3 seventh and the 7-iron punch shot from the rough on the fifth and final playoff hole.

Even par through six holes on that Sunday, the birdie at seven provided a necessary jolt.

"If you ask my caddie, what was the most important part of that day, he'd say that," Spieth acknowledged. "He said that changed everything.

"I had been bailing out on some pins, and then all of a sudden I think I had six birdies on the back nine, just started going at the pins and trusting it."

His playoff competitors, Zach Johnson and David Hearn, had opportunities to close it out. Spieth just kept grinding out pars.

Finally, on the 77th hole of the tournament, Spieth made magic happen.

"Looking back, I wanted to hit an 8-iron out of the right rough," he said. "Michael (Greller, his caddie) was like, 'I don't know about that.' I was like, 'How about a 7-iron and just try and punch it straight through?' It just came off so perfectly, and it went right to the back fringe where it needed to be."

Spieth two-putted for par and the win.

"It was nice to get a victory because that did wonders for me as far as allowing me to play in other majors that year," he said. "I was really pleased with how the year had been going prior to coming here, but this was a nice exclamation point on it."

Spieth didn't have much time to relish it. He had media responsibilities, quickly showered, cleaned out his locker and got to the airport to board the jet for the British Open.

Once the commotion subsided, the magnitude of the moment hit him.

"It all happened so fast," he said. "But I would say the moment that I realized it could possibly change my golf life was about halfway through that plane ride to Scotland."

Building his brand

Spieth pocketed more than $3.8 million on the course last year. According to a report in Golf Digest earlier this spring, he made an estimated $4.5 million off the course thanks to lucrative deals with Under Armour, Titleist and Rolex. He also represents NetJets and AT&T.

"He can go into a room and sit with a CEO who's three times his age or sit in a media scrum for 25 minutes and handle everything with presence, poise and maturity," Spieth's agent, Jay Danzi, said in the Golf Digest report. "He can go play a pro-am with a bunch of 60-year-olds and connect, but he also can go talk to kids about texting and driving and reach a much younger demographic.

"We say 'no' a lot. We could have 40 deals if we wanted to."

Spieth has not turned down too many opportunities to compete.

Since turning pro last year, he has played in more than 40 Tour events in the U.S. and made stops in China, Scotland, Panama and Colombia.

"I enjoy it," Spieth said.

It also is an opportunity to broaden his fan base and pay back tournaments that granted him exemptions in the past like the JDC.

"I love coming to the Quad-Cities, and there's nowhere that has people this nice," Spieth said.

Spieth comes across as humble, intelligent, genuine and approachable.

Despite coming off a four-week playing stretch, Spieth flew into the Quad-Cities for media day last month and fulfilled every media obligation and smiled for every posed photograph on a Monday morning. He even conducted a Twitter Q&A in the locker room before his news conference.

"He's not a young guy who's been coached and presented himself in an impressive manner," JDC tournament director Clair Peterson said. "This is his DNA."

During media day, CNN anchor Shane O'Donoghue spent considerable time with Spieth.

"When Shane was done, he told me, 'I thought Rory McIlroy was the most impressive, sincere, articulate and well-rounded young golfer I had talked to, but Jordan is right with him and maybe more impressive,'" Peterson said.

Those characteristics sit well with sponsors and fans.

"When you combine the number of top 10s he's had, his personality, appeal and genuine likeability, there is potential for a big impact over a long career," Peterson said.

His burgeoning celebrity has made it difficult to go unnoticed at restaurants in the Dallas area. That said, Spieth said he's not as well-known as Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo.

"I don't necessarily enjoy the attention," Spieth said, "but it is good for my brand if people know who I am and understand it. That's how you create outreach, fans and opportunities.

"I'd like to win a lot of golf tournaments, with a lot of majors, but also help inspire and draw a lot of people to the game of golf. I'm not going to do that by sitting in my hotel room all night."

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