SILVIS, Ill. – Chronologically, at least, Jordan Spieth became the youngest winner on the PGA TOUR in 82 years on Sunday at the John Deere Classic.
His status as a 19-year-old, however, might be subject to review.
The Texas phenom must have aged at least the two weeks between Sunday and his upcoming 20th birthday just in the course of five grueling holes of a three-man sudden death playoff alone.
As it was, the remarkable combination of confidence, savvy and talent Spieth brought to TPC Deere Run for the 16th start of his first year as a professional would call his age into question.
Spieth contended in his first professional start near his hometown of Dallas at the age of 16. And he seemed to have steadily been maturing into a seasoned pro virtually from that coming-out party at the 2010 HP Byron Nelson Championship through the moment his 2-foot putt to end Sunday’s John Deere drama found the bottom of the cup.
“I don’t know,” he said when apprised of the fact he was a PGA TOUR winner about a year sooner than the likes of Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy. “I don’t think of my age as my age. I just think of playing and competing with these guys as my peers. The guys in this event, each week, week to week, I don’t think of myself as younger than them.
“But,” he added, “I didn’t think it would happen this early. A year ago, we had won a national (college) championship at Texas and I thought I’d be back at school right now.”
In a sense, school is where he has been since January. This year has been an on-the-job crash course in standing up to the kind of pressure Spieth faced in Sunday’s playoff match vs. 37-year-old Zach Johnson, a nine-time TOUR winner with a Masters on his resume, and David Hearn, a 34-year-old veteran.
Clearly, Spieth is a quick study. Consider his thinking over the shot that essentially decided Sunday’s playoff. From the tree-lined rough on the right side of the 18th hole, Spieth said he considered trying to cut an 8-iron around the trees and off the pond guarding the left half of the green. He opted to punch a 7-iron, keeping clear of the water, after both Johnson and Hearn found trouble.
“And I guarantee you, a few weeks ago, I don’t do that,” he said.
That’s owed to lessons learned in the course of a spectacular year that has seen him post top-10 finishes now in six of his 16 starts and top 25s in a couple more.
Sunday’s breakthrough victory was a tutorial and then some. Spieth, who also had played in eight TOUR events as an amateur, never really had felt the heat of stretch-run contention. And he felt that and more during the five holes of sudden death.
“The first couple of playoff holes were the worst as far as emotions and pressure,” he said. “The 20-footer turns into a 50-footer. You don’t know how hard to hit the ball.
“Once I got (through the first two playoff holes) to 16 and 17, I didn’t feel any nerves. It was weird. But I just felt more comfortable hanging in there as the playoff holes went by.”
Spieth’s victory came at the age of 19 years, 11 months and 17 days, making him the youngest winner on TOUR since Ralph Guldahl won the 1931 Santa Monica Open.
Spieth’s decision to spend the year beyond his freshman collegiate campaign pursuing a PGA TOUR card while playing on sponsor’s exemptions was a bold one. But it was affirmed when he obtained Special Temporary Member status by matching last year’s 150th year-end money list position in just his fourth start of the year.
And it certainly was affirmed when Sunday’s win made him a regular TOUR member, making him eligible for the FedExCup Playoffs. Spieth earned 500 FedExCup points for the victory, and now can add those to the 614 he earned as a non-member. He's now 11th in the FedExCup standings.
The victory also earned him berths in this week’s Open Championship at Muirfield, the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational, the PGA Championship, the Hyundai Tournament of Champions and the Masters.
Spieth’s youth did emerge when he noted the money he earned just seems like a number and that the sporty, leaping deer trophy he collected was as meaningful as the cash. In fact, he said he was as excited to collect the oversized ceremonial check in the post-tourney ceremony as the actual legal tender.
And speaking of green, there is this finishing touch to achieving a childhood dream:
“Honestly, the thing that hit me was when David Feherty said ‘Augusta,’” Spieth said reverentially of the Masters berth that came with Sunday’s victory. “That is a place I have been to one time – the Monday practice round two years ago. It was like walking in a video game.”
It won’t be in April.
Video games are for kids.