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    • Spieth an inspiration as he prepares to defend

      Other young players hope to replicate 20-year-old's success

    • Jordan Spieth will defend his first TOUR title this week at TPC Deere Run (Tyler Lecka/Getty Images)Jordan Spieth will defend his first TOUR title this week at TPC Deere Run (Tyler Lecka/Getty Images)

    SILVIS, Ill. – Jordan Spieth played nine practice holes Tuesday at TPC Deere Run, trailed the entire way, he estimated, by a couple hundred young fans sporting Jordan Spieth look-alike bobblehead dolls.

    His drive to Deere Run, meanwhile, included a pair of billboards highlighted by the bigger-than-life likeness of the 20-year-old Texan doing his best imitation of the Incredible Hulk – if ever the Hulk wielded a sand wedge, that is.

    The popular bobblehead also features that two-fists-outstretched, Hulk-ish pose, a reminder of the celebration that followed the bunker shot Spieth holed at the 72nd hole of the 2013 John Deere Classic. The epic shot set up a five-hole playoff win over Zach Johnson and David Hearn, a breakthrough moment that changed Spieth’s life, and changed the PGA TOUR just a little bit, too.

    “My golf world has changed completely since last year at this time,” Spieth said in advance of his first turn as a defending champion. “It feels like it has been a few years ago, to be honest.”

    In the eventful year since Spieth became the first teen in more than 80 years to collect a PGA TOUR victory, he enters this week at No. 5 in the FedExCup standings, sits 10th in the world rankings and posted four second-place finishes, including runner-up shares at both the Masters and last year’s TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola. He boasts six additional top 10 finishes include a T4 at THE PLAYERS Championship in May.

    Spieth won 2013 Rookie of the Year honors, and also became the first rookie to play in The Presidents Cup last October. He comes to TPC Deere Run fifth in the U.S. Ryder Cup points race.

    In advance of taking the tee in Thursday’s marquee pairing alongside former British Open champion Stewart Cink and three-time John Deere Classic winner Steve Stricker, Spieth admitted he has considered what might have been – or, more to the point, not been – had his slightly thinned bunker shot not rattled that Sunday pin at Deere Run a year ago.

    Jordan Spieth’s win at age 19 is the No. 5 Moment of 2013
    • Highlights

      Jordan Spieth’s win at age 19 is the No. 5 Moment of 2013

    “It probably would have all come down to the playoff at the Wyndham Championship,” he said, citing a sudden-death showdown he lost to another fast-rising star, Patrick Reed, a month beyond his John Deere breakthrough. “I wouldn’t have gone overseas (to the British Open.) I probably would have been in the PGA Championship. And the Wyndham playoff would have determined if I even got in the FedExCup Playoffs.”

    Beyond that? No Presidents Cup berth, Spieth said. No Hyundai Tournament of Champions. And no access to several other elite field invitationals which Spieth described as “great places to establish relationships that have made it a lot more comfortable for me to compete against the best players in the world.

    “I understand what it did for me,” he concluded.

    So do several of his age-group peers. Freshly minted professionals Patrick Rodgers, Cameron Wilson and Steven Ihm and blossoming amateurs Jordan Niebrugge and Bobby Wyatt each are playing the Deere this year on sponsor’s exemptions, as Spieth did in 2012.  All would love to follow his lead to the letter.

    “Yeah, it’s a good road map,” said Wilson, the Stanford product who turned professional after winning NCAA medalist honors in May.  “People like to talk about the barriers to being a young guy coming up on TOUR, but I think Jordan is just a good example of how if you play well, none of that really matters. I think tournament golf is the ultimate meritocracy.”

    Only, though, if young players without status are given an opportunity to play.

    Spieth said he couldn’t have made his Sunday run up the leaderboard a year ago -- he birdied five of his final six holes in regulation -- without benefit of the experience he gained playing as an amateur the previous year.

    Dozens of these Jordan Spieth bobbleheads
    were seen at the course on Wednesday.

    “This is a tournament that does it right,” Spieth said of the John Deere Classic, where tournament director Clair Peterson carefully is building a brand by choosing up-and-coming youngsters as sponsor exempt players.

    Rodgers, another Stanford standout who was the top-ranked amateur before turning professional in June, is playing for a third straight year at TPC Deere Run, where he briefly held the third-round lead last year en route to tie for 15th.

    Now, the first-year professional is making his fourth TOUR start in as many weeks and hoping his familiarity with the par-71 TPC Deere Run layout can help build on top 50 finishes in each of the past three weeks. Rodgers would like nothing more than to follow Spieth’s path and score full-time privileges on TOUR or at least gain entry Web.Com Tour Finals this coming fall.

    This week, Rodgers and the rest of the young guns will need to overcome a field that includes 2014 TOUR winners Harris English, Chris Kirk, Scott Stallings, Russell Henley, John Senden and Ben Crane and another 10 former major championship winners.

    Then there are John Deere Classic masters such as Stricker, three years removed from a run of three straight wins, and Johnson, the former Masters champ from nearby Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He won here in 2012 and would be chasing a three-peat of his own this week had he not bogeyed his 72nd hole to open the door for Spieth last year.

    Johnson benefited himself from a pair of early sponsor’s exemptions at his “hometown” event, and said young players definitely are hitting the TOUR readier than ever to make the most of such opportunities. Still, he said few arrive as ready as Spieth.

    “We’re all used to these young studs coming out here thirsty and hungry and just trying to dominate,” Johnson said. “But I think Jordan’s unique. What he has done, and is continuing to do, is not normal.”

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