SAN DIEGO – There was an innocent moment here Wednesday between the 20-year-old star and the man he grew up idolizing.
Both Jordan Spieth and Tiger Woods sat on a dais, next to the PGA Tour commissioner, to collect their respective year-end awards – Spieth for the Rookie of the Year, after a one-win, nine top-10 campaign; Woods the Player of the Year, after yet another five-win season.
When Woods stood up to say a few words, he went out of his way to praise Spieth – how he went from having no status anywhere to winning an event, to reaching the Tour Championship, to earning a spot on the Presidents Cup team, to finishing inside the top 25 in the world rankings.
“It’s going to be fun for a number of years battling it out,” Woods said. “I’m going to enjoy it.”
Well, the first battle went to the kid – and it wasn’t really a contest.
On a course that Woods has owned since the late ’90s, Spieth thoroughly outplayed the world No. 1 in every facet on his way to a second-round, 9-under 63 and the halfway lead at the Farmers Insurance Open. On the easier North Course, Spieth hit all but one green and one-putted six of his last eight holes to take a one-shot lead over Stewart Cink.
As for playing with Woods for the first time in competition?
“I wasn’t intimidated by any means,” Spieth said.
Woods (71), meanwhile, failed to birdie a par 5 for the second consecutive day, three-putted the last for bogey and sits nine shots back, needing an epic weekend comeback to win for a record ninth time at Torrey Pines. Ever the optimist, Woods recalled what he did here in 1999 – 62-65 on the weekend to win by two – and maintained there’s still a long way to go.
Spieth, staked to his first solo 36-hole lead on Tour, believes that too, which is why he didn’t much dwell on his eye-opening play over the first two days here.
Still, for a kid already brimming with confidence, his start at Torrey can only help, especially given the big-time stage.
Sure, he had played with Rory McIlroy in San Antonio. And yes, he was paired with Phil Mickelson on the final day in Boston. There was even that Presidents Cup practice round with Woods in October. But this was different. This was Spieth coming into Torrey Pines – Tiger’s personal playground – and beating him handily, looking completely unfazed.
“Jordan prefers to play with the best in the world,” said his caddie, Michael Greller. “He loves it. He gets good nerves when there are more people, and he thinks more clearly. He’s more focused in those situations.”
Spieth and Greller began working together at the 2011 U.S. Junior. That week, Spieth was listless and looking for a spark, and he found it when Golf Channel cameras came out to watch his match.
“It’s time to go now,” Spieth told his caddie, and after a birdie on that hole he was well on his way to becoming the first player since – you guessed it – Woods to win multiple U.S. Junior titles.
For Greller, it’s a surreal experience to be back here at Torrey, a year later, after so much has changed. His boss is now the game’s hottest star, and he’s a multimillionaire, and he’s in commercials … and he’s not even old enough to legally enjoy a post-round beer. “I keep pinching myself,” said Greller, who before hopping on Spieth’s bag was teaching 12-year-olds at Narrows View Intermediate School in Washington.
After all, consider where they were a year ago: slamming the trunk after rounds of 72-73 here in the pro debut. At the time, Spieth had no status, anywhere, and his next few months were full of unknowns.
Frustrated and disappointed, Greller recalls bumping into Spieth’s father, Shawn, after they missed the cut: “He said, ‘Michael, it’s a marathon. You’re going to have weeks like that.’”
Well, they haven’t had many since.
Spieth had a win and three runners-up while missing just five cuts in 2013, and already in the new wraparound season he has three top 20s, including a second-place showing at Kapalua, where he shared the 54-hole lead.
“He’s got some kind of x-factor,” Greller said. “I don’t know where it comes from, but he has it.”
And yes, Woods is a believer too, especially after the first battle went Spieth’s way.
“The kid has got talent,” said Woods, providing the early favorite for understatement of the year.