WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. – Nineteen-year-old kids aren’t supposed to do this. Nineteen-year-old kids aren’t supposed to blend seamlessly into the fabric of PGA Tour leaderboards on a weekly basis; they aren’t supposed to look exceedingly comfortable and confident in such a competitive environment; they aren’t supposed to actually play better as the pressure increases and the intrusive glare of the spotlight shines directly upon them.
Jordan Spieth isn’t just any 19-year-old kid.
Three weeks shy of his 20th birthday, Spieth is again firmly in the mix for a tournament title. Entering the final round of The Greenbrier Classic, he is five strokes behind leader Johnson Wagner, thanks to three consistent rounds of 67.
This is becoming a regular occurrence. After beginning the year with no status on any professional tour, his goals went from playing well enough on the Web.com circuit to get into the four-event series to claim a PGA Tour card at year’s end to trying to finish top-25 on the minor-league tour to gaining special temporary membership in the big leagues.
He locked up the latter by mid-March and has spent the remainder of his season chasing a singular goal. Due to his status as a special temporary member, Spieth can only gain entrance into the FedEx Cup playoffs with a victory. And since he already has playing privileges secured for next year, the 19-year-old is literally playing with house money, giving him a distinct advantage over his elder statesmen who are worried about things like keeping status and paying their mortgages.
“If I don’t win, it doesn’t really do much for me, because I have to win to get into the playoffs,” he said. “I’m just going out there free swinging and that’s a great place to be, I think.”
If his words don’t ring true, just look at the statistics. In 14 starts this season, Spieth has claimed five top-10 results, including a solo sixth place at last week’s AT&T National, and already cashed $1,153,079.
That number will decidedly increase on Sunday – and it could nearly double with his first career win. Perhaps more important to the overall scheme of history than the money or the FedEx Cup inclusion, though, is the fact that Spieth could become a part of PGA Tour legend. Only four previous teenagers have won sanctioned tournaments, and none since 1931.
If it sounds like a title will lead to an instant march toward the record books, though, let’s take a walk down memory lane. Of the four previous teens to win, each had a story of upheaval or tragedy not too far down the road.
Harry “Lighthorse” Cooper won the 1923 Galveston Open at 19. While he enjoyed a fruitful career, Cooper always maintained that he suffered from a “mental hang-up” during major championship events and could never get over that.
Not exactly the worst story of tragedy, but that was actually the most positive of the four tales.
Ralph Guldahl won the 1931 Santa Monica Open, also at 19. Over the next decade, he became a top professional, but in 1939 he wrote a book called “Groove Your Golf.” Guldahl became so analytical about the golf swing that he soon lost his game.
He would never win past age 28.
But the stories get more calamitous.
Johnny McDermott won the U.S. Open when he was 19, the youngest player to claim that illustrious title. His name lives in golfing lore, but so too does his story.
By 24, McDermott had been admitted to a mental institution.
And then there’s Young Tom Morris. Beginning at 17, he won four consecutive Open Championship titles. Young Tom, however, remained forever young.
He died at age 24.
None of these tales should serve as a caution flag for Spieth as he rounds the turn into the final lap toward a potential first victory.
Neither do they serve as motivation, as he maintains that getting his name into the record book – at least for now – isn’t as much of a priority as getting his name into more fields before the year ends.
“I’m not trying to win by a certain age as much as I am just trying to win so that I can play with these guys some more this year,” Spieth said. “I’d really like to play in the FedEx Cup playoffs. The only way I can do that is to win. I’m happy to be in contention again.
“It’s not like I’m in the lead or tied for the lead. I’ve got a lot of work to do tomorrow, but it’s nice to have a chance to do it.”
Nineteen-year-olds kids aren’t supposed to have such perspective. Nineteen-year-old kids aren’t supposed to shrug off history; they aren’t supposed to step on the proverbial gas pedal and keep playing better; they aren’t supposed to join the most consistent players on the PGA Tour.
Jordan Spieth isn’t just any 19-year-old kid.