This U.S. Junior Amateur final certainly wasn’t a dud. In the end, like a well-conditioned thoroughbred pulling away down the stretch, 15-year-old prodigy Jordan Spieth simply couldn’t be stopped.
Call it destiny, fate or any other superlative that comes to mind. Spieth, of Dallas, Texas, outlasted 16-year-old Jay Hwang of San Diego, Calif., 4 and 3, to win his first U.S. Junior Amateur title on Trump National Club’s New Course.
“I’m so happy after coming so close last year,” said Spieth, who lost in the 2008 semifinals at Shoal Creek.
Ever since that defeat, Spieth viewed the Junior Amateur as a dangling carrot, the prize that could be the salve on an open wound. The toddler who first picked up a plastic golf club at 18 months in his own backyard elevated his game, ascending to the top of the junior ranks as a premier player.
When he closed out Hwang on the 33rd hole by dropping in an 8-foot putt on top of Hwang’s 12-footer for a halve, he animatedly fired off a succession of left-handed fist pumps before embracing his caddie, Mike Abill.
The mini celebration had as much to do with surviving a wicked week of golf as it did with winning. The victory made him the eighth medalist in history to triumph and first since Matthew Rosenfeld in 2000. In addition, it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that with two years of eligibility left, Spieth has the opportunity to tie Tiger Woods’ record of winning the Junior Amateur three years in a row.
“Yeah, it was on my mind a few months ago,” said Spieth.
When asked if he realized the significance of having his name on the trophy, he added, "I was thinking about that the whole round today."
Even when, according to Spieth, he played disappointingly through the first 17 holes. It wasn’t until he lagged in a 15-foot birdie putt off the back fringe on No. 18 that replenished his confidence. He squared the match. It’s immaterial in match play, but Hwang was two over par through 18; Spieth one over on the 7,159-yard, par-72 layout, which incidentally, also hosted the U.S. Girls’ Junior final that was won by medalist Amy Anderson, 6 and 5, over Kimberly Kim. It was the first time since 1991 that both junior medalists won.
After the break, Hwang never could get going, holding the lead just two holes all day. A balky putter had him pushing balls off his intended target. Nowhere was that more evident than on the 22nd hole, a 544-yard par 5. Hwang took a quick swing on a 3-foot comebacker with the ball gliding by the hole for a loss.
“Basically, he beat me on the greens,” said Hwang, who was raised in Chinese Taipei and took up the game when his grandmother introduced him to it, prior to the trophy presentation.
“If he made a couple more putts, it could have been a different match,” said his golf instructor and caddie, John Mason.
The pendulum swung in Spieth’s favor on the 29th hole. Holding a 1-up margin, Spieth took a gutsy risk by flying at the flagstick on his 70-yard blind approach. The flagstick was tucked tight on the front-left of the green, guarded by a front bunker and the abutting pond. Spieth stuck the approach to 2 feet.
“I couldn’t see it from my angle,” said Spieth, calling it the turning point of the match. “But [Hwang] went over and he picked the ball up and threw it back at me. That shot was huge.”
Spieth forged a 2-up lead by this point.
Hwang’s putter turned as cold as the Arctic on the next hole. Instead of slicing the deficit, he gingerly tapped a 3-footer by the hole that would have won it.
The sweltering heat may have taken its toll on Hwang. He started taking tired swings. Spieth took full control, capitalizing on a 12-footer for birdie on the dogleg left par-4 31st hole to increase his lead to 3 up. He unleashed a furious fist pump.
As he strolled to the 32nd teeing ground, the 32nd hole, Spieth just kept telling himself to calm down. That was until Hwang struck his tee shot fat. The ball hit the short side of the island green and bounded back into the water.
“It was very sad,” said Hwang, who conceded the hole when his drop-zone pitch stopped 20 feet above the hole. “I didn’t give up. I just didn’t think it would go in the water.”
That’s when Spieth, with a 4-up lead and dormie, knew the match was his.
“When you’re dormie with four holes to play in a national championship,” said Spieth, “it’s just so difficult to come back.”
It all but set up the winning hole.
Spieth said that last year’s disappointment prepared him for this year. The nerves were there, but he knew how to control them and his emotion. All through the week, whenever Spieth would get ahead of himself, worked up or negative, Abill served as a psychiatrist. Abill, who caddies at the club, had lobbied to get on Spieth’s bag when he read a short feature about him. He came away impressed.
“You can’t let a player who gets down on himself fall apart,” said Abill. “When he gets down, never is he scared. He doesn’t panic.”
The victory provided relief for his dad, Shawn Spieth, who had watched his boy mature this past year. When his son took an eight-day trip to the Caribbean at the end of June, he saw the determination in his eyes when he returned. He hadn’t swung a club on the vacation. Jordan’s first tournament back left him rusty, but more important, brought self admonishment. It was the only time in the last year he didn’t swing a club.
“I’m ecstatic,” said Shawn afterward. “Because I knew how bad he wanted this.”