Bremerton, Wash. – Ever since winning his first U.S. Junior Amateur title in 2009 as a 15-year-old, Jordan Spieth has been a man on a mission … and one with a large bull’s-eye on his back.
Knowing there would be two more opportunities to repeat the feat – something only Tiger Woods had accomplished in the 64 years of this national championship for golfers 17 and under – Spieth put that accomplishment high on his list of goals.
But there’s a reason why only one golfer has managed to inscribe his name more than once on the U.S. Junior Amateur Trophy.
It’s extremely difficult, no matter how good the player might be.
Winning six matches – five of which are over 18 holes – in a four-day window is not only physically taxing but mentally exhausting as well. All it takes is one minor slip up, one minor mistake and the dream is over.
Spieth found that out in 2010 at Egypt Valley Country Club in Ada, Mich. His second-round foe was an unknown from Alabama named Robby Shelton. Spieth figured he’d clobber him not long after the turn. Instead, he was sent packing back to Dallas following a stunning 1-down defeat.
“It’s very, very difficult to win,” said Spieth. “You have to win six matches against some of the best junior golfers in the world. They are all capable of shooting three or four under on this course because they shot four or five under in their [sectional] qualifier to get here, or they had made it through match play [to the quarterfinals or beyond] in the past to get here.
“Nobody is going to shoot six or seven under every single round. You are going to have an off day. I had three matches that were all square with three to play. If they hit one close or I end up missing the green, it could have been a different week for me.”
Such is the fickleness of match play. And it’s what made Woods’ run of six consecutive USGA titles – three Juniors and three U.S. Amateurs from 1991-96 – that much more remarkable.
Now Spieth, a 6-and-5 winner on Saturday at Gold Mountain Golf Club’s Olympic Course over Chelso Barrett of Keene, N.H., has joined Woods in the multiple U.S. Junior title fraternity. It’s a class that has just two students.
“That’s really cool,” said Spieth, who turns 18 next Wednesday and owns a 17-2 Junior Amateur match-play record over his four appearances. “Any time you can be compared to any of Tiger’s golf accomplishments, it’s special. He won it three years in a row. I’m glad to have gotten two of them.”
And despite being interviewed all week by reporters, Spieth showed an inner calm throughout his stay at Gold Mountain. Then again, he’s been through pressure-cookers before. When he played in his first PGA Tour event, the 2010 HP Byron Nelson Classic, the then-16-year-old was “freaking out” over the size of the galleries.
So even when the gallery swelled to some 500 spectators during the afternoon round of the scheduled 36-hole championship match, Spieth hardly was fazed.
“My caddie Michael [Greller] said it was a pretty big crowd,” said Spieth. “Yeah, you weren’t there in Dallas.
“Quite honestly, I didn’t have any first-tee jitters. I did this morning. This afternoon, I was really loose. I think I got nervous maybe with three or four swings this whole week. It was great to have a caddie who was keeping me very, very positive because I do get negative out there. It’s one of my weaknesses. Michael was unbelievable at keeping me positive at everything. He just told me to stay balanced, stay smooth and stay calm. And I was able to stay neutral today.”
Five years ago for the U.S. Amateur Public Links at Gold Mountain, Michael Greller decided to sign up to caddie. He wound up on the bag of quarterfinalist Matt Savage, a Florida State standout from Louisville, Ky. A year later, the sixth-grade teacher at Narrows View Intermediate in nearby University Place started caddying during the summer at Chambers Bay. He only works about a dozen times a year, but when the U.S. Amateur was contested on the course last year, he contacted Savage to see if he knew anyone who needed a caddie.
Savage did. His instructor’s son, Justin Thomas, had just finished as the U.S. Junior Amateur runner-up at Egypt Valley and was in the field. Thomas and Greller made a formidable team as the 17-year-old from Goshen, Ky., defeated England’s Robert Leopold in the first round before dropping a 19-hole decision to Scott Strohmeyer of Tuscaloosa, Ala.
With the Junior Amateur coming to Gold Mountain, Thomas contacted Greller about landing a bag. First he hooked him up with Gavin Hall, but when the Pittsford, N.Y., native had to withdraw due to a wrist injury two weeks ago, Greller inquired about Spieth. Thomas and Spieth are longtime friends, so a partnership was created.
But now Greller has a possible dilemma when it comes to next month’s U.S. Amateur at Erin Hills outside of Milwaukee. If Thomas qualifies, will he work with him or continue the good karma with Spieth?
“I told him I was going to be on Justin’s bag for the Amateur,” said Greller, “and [Spieth] goes, ‘No you’re not.’ I thought Jordan’s dad was going to caddie for him.”
That still might be the case.
“I’ve had some really good results with him on the bag,” said Spieth. “Probably the three or four best tournament rounds I’ve played have been was with him. But they haven’t been the most fun. I know Michael was planning on going out there. Justin is a really good friend of mine. I keep in touch with him four or five times a week. We may have a little argument there.”
Just don’t expect Greller to turn this into a full-time gig.
“I know where my talents are,” he said, “and they are still in the classroom.”
Hoping For A Call
Spieth hopes that winning the U.S. Junior will increase his chances to make the USA Walker Cup Team. The biennial Match against Great Britain and Ireland will take place Sept. 10-11 at Royal Aberdeen in Scotland.
In January, Spieth was one of several elite amateurs invited to an informal Walker Cup practice session in Florida. So he knows the USGA selectors and Captain Jim Holtgrieve are watching his performances.
“That was my goal to begin the year,” said Spieth, who has played for the USA in several international junior competitions, including the Junior Ryder Cup in Scotland. “I’m about as patriotic as it gets.
“I took some time off [this summer] to prepare for this [Junior Amateur] and the Western [Amateur]. I want to go to North Shore [Country Club near Chicago] and hopefully have a good week.”
Spieth will conclude his summer at the U.S. Amateur before classes start at the University of Texas.
Odds And Ends
Spieth said this was the third time this summer he has putted on poa annua greens, and he’s still struggling to figure them out. He played the Sunnehanna and Northeast Amateurs in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, respectively, on the same type of putting surfaces without great results. “I had never seen them before this summer,” said Spieth. “But my stroke felt a lot better today. Yesterday and today, I found a way to will it in [the hole].”… Brett Barrett, Chelso’s older brother, never made it to Gold Mountain for the final. Chelso had mentioned that he was planning to fly cross-country on Saturday for the championship match. Chelso indicated that Brett would likely caddie for him at next month’s U.S. Amateur…Greller donned a University of Texas hat all week out of respect for Spieth’s future school. “I actually hate Texas,” admitted Greller, who went to Northwestern College in Iowa, an NAIA school. “I was born and raised in Michigan. I just went out and bought [the hat]. I decided to support the Longhorns this week.”… Barrett’s caddie all week was Central Kitsap High senior Adam Hansen. Hansen plays on his school’s golf team…Besides Spieth and Woods, only two other golfers in Junior Amateur history had won a title and made it back to a championship match. Eddie Pearce won in 1968 and lost the final to Aly Trompas the following year. Mike Brannan won in 1971 and lost the 1973 title match to Jack Renner…Barrett not only earned an exemption into next month’s U.S. Amateur, but also the 2012 Junior Amateur at the Golf Club of New England in Stratham, N.H., and the 2012 U.S. Amateur Public Links at Soldier Hollow G.C. in Midway, Utah…Barrett and Spieth also get exemptions out of U.S. Open local qualifying in 2012…Spieth said friends back home are planning his 18th birthday celebration. He leaves for the Western Amateur on July 30.
David Shefter is a USGA senior staff writer. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.