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Profile: Jordan Spieth

Jordan Spieth is drawing fans inside and outside the ropes

September 2014

The label of Next Big Thing often ends up being a useless weight. It's shiny and attracts attention, but it gets heavy in the form of expectation, scrutiny, distraction and criticism—and, sometimes, disenchantment.

The irresistible force that was the 20-year-old Tiger Woods only adds to the load. After Woods shouldered the NBT burden with such ease that he was immediately moving on to become golf's Biggest Thing, his supposed successors have been overwhelmed by the implied task of doing something remotely similar. Even Rory McIlroy, who won two majors by eight shots by age 23, has seemed weighed down.

The current NBT, by a fair bit, is Jordan Spieth. Though he had a birthday on July 27, it was only his 21st, which givesSpieth a chronological "boy wonder" edge over Patrick Reed, who has two more PGA Tour victories (one in a playoff with Spieth) but is three years older. Matteo Manassero is also 21 and has four victories on the European Tour but has struggled in America and in majors./p>

More than victories, it is Spieth's consistent high quality, and an ability to rise to the big occasion, that has inspired faith among admirers that he is the young player best prepared to follow Woods' path.

Spieth did just that in his first steps to prominence, winning the U.S. Junior Amateur twice to join Woods as the only multiple winner of that event. As a 16-year-old, Spieth tied for 16th in the Byron Nelson Championship, finishing higher than Woods ever did as an amateur in a PGA Tour event. In Spieth's only year at the University of Texas, the Dallas native led the Longhorns to a national title, something Woods didn't do at Stanford.

Spieth finally had a misstep when he missed the second stage of Q school at the end of 2012. But he accessed his clutch gene by turning sponsors' exemptions into strong finishes, earning temporary member status on tour. A few months later he won the John Deere Classic at 19 years, 11 months to become the youngest PGA Tour winner in 82 years, went on to finish second at the Tour Championship, and was picked for the Presidents Cup team.

This year has been even more dramatic. In his first try in the Masters and the Players Championship, Spieth led on Sunday before stumbling in the middle of the rounds to finish T-2 and T-4.

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Though very young, Spieth seems much older, partly because he has gotten so ingrained in the golf landscape over the past year, but mostly because he's so seemingly together. Says Paul Azinger, a perceptive observer: "Jordan Spieth comes off to me as a grown man."

The components are there. All lean muscle at 6-1, 185 pounds, Spieth possesses a thickness through his neck and upper torso that makes him look more like a veteran baseball player than a willowy young tour pro. His features have the All-America symmetry reminiscent of actor Mark Harmon as a youth, any adolescent gawkiness long gone. For good measure, when Spieth takes off his hat on the final green to shake hands with playing partners, he reveals a slightly receding hairline.

With a microphone in front of him, Spieth has an easy poise and a winning way of blending confidence with humility. "That ultimate goal of becoming No. 1 in the world is still out there, and I'm off to a good start in achieving that," Spieth said before finishing T-17 at the U.S. Open. "But it's going to take that extra step that nobody else is taking... that's how I guess I stay focused and stay grounded, because I'm not winning. I've won once out of almost 40 [PGA Tour] tries now going back to amateur days, and those percentages aren't very good. That's humbling to me, and so I've just got to stay patient, and my time will come."

The most grown-up part of Spieth is his game. He has a sophisticated toolbox, saving strokes with intelligent shot-shaping, sound judgment, an artful short game and a brave putter. When he's on, he can go low, as he did with final rounds of 62 and 64 in last year's FedEx Cup. But he specializes in getting the most out of his rounds when he's slightly off, steeped in the ability—to borrow a bromide from Bobby Locke and Jack Nicklaus—to "play badly well." It's why Spieth has finished among the top 20 some 27 times as a pro.

The superior management is imperative for Spieth because, so far at least, he has not shown the power that is the seductive strong suit of most of the tour's young hotshots. His 2014 statistical rankings present the raw outline of a medium hitter who isn't particularly precise: 90th in driving distance, 137th in driving accuracy, 150th in total driving, 122nd in greens in regulation. His clubhead speed of 111.92 miles per hour ranks 115th on tour. Yet in what he considers a so-far sub-par ball-striking year and an average one putting (24th in strokes gained), Spieth is eighth in scoring.

Substance over style is what garners him high grades from the tour's elite. "He's awesome," says world No. 1 Adam Scott. "He's got it all happening right now to go to the top." Phil Mickelson, who implored Fred Couples to use a captain's pick on Spieth in last year's Presidents Cup, calls him "a very rare talent." Woods, typically terse in his comments about another player, revealingly used a magic word: "I think he can be great."

Not surprisingly, sage veterans are enthused by a young player with old-school skills.

"Jordan's got it upstairs. He knows how to play golf," says Lee Trevino, a fellow Dallas resident who has had some conversations with Spieth. "He learned in that Texas wind, like I did, so he kind of shuts the club and holds on to keep the ball low. He knows where it's going, so no reason he has to change. Maybe if it turned out he needed more height or distance to handle Augusta, OK, then maybe change. But he went after them pretty good at Augusta."

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