Newsmaker of the Year No. 9: Jordan Spieth

By Ryan LavnerDecember 12, 2013, 12:05 pm

Of course there were fleeting moments of anxiety.

Jordan Spieth had flamed out of Q-School’s second stage, and – for a few weeks, at least – he was just another newly minted pro with no status on any major tour, a 19-year-old trying to figure out a schedule, write notes to tournament directors, settle on a management team and explore his sponsorship options … all of this mere days after completing his finals in English and Rhetoric at the University of Texas.

“There was maybe a little bit of fear that crept in,” he said last week. “That, hey, I’m going to need to make the most of these starts when they come.”

Fast-forward eight months, and Spieth was on board a private jet, hands still trembling, trying in vain to fall asleep. Earlier that day he had holed an improbable bunker shot on the 72nd hole and won the John Deere Classic in a playoff. Now, he was en route to Scotland, to the British Open, and on the long flight he braced himself for the myriad ways his life was about to change.

After all, Jordan Spieth was no stranger to exceeding expectations – he once shot 62 as a 12-year-old. He was the No. 1-ranked junior in the star-studded Class of 2015. He joined Tiger Woods as the only players to win multiple U.S. Junior titles. In his lone full season at Texas, Spieth won three times and helped the Longhorns capture their first national title in 40 years. At the NCAA Championship, he holed a 4-iron shot on the 15th hole at Riviera to secure a crucial point. At the 2011 Walker Cup, he was the leading point-getter for an American team that featured, among others, Peter Uihlein, Harris English and world No. 1 amateurs Patrick Cantlay and Chris Williams.

With that background, sure, he was trending toward greatness, but few could have predicted that Spieth would script the best rookie season since Tiger in ’96. In 12 short months, he went from making his first start of the year at Torrey Pines (only because of a late sponsor exemption) to teeing it up at Tiger’s 18-man cash-grab at Sherwood.

In between, he became the first teen to win a Tour event in more than 80 years, racked up three runners-up, six other top 10s and nearly $4 million in earnings.

In between, he became the first player since Woods to begin the year with no status and reach the Tour Championship (where he tied for second), and the youngest ever to represent the U.S. at the Presidents Cup.

In between, he became one of Camp Ponte Vedra’s media darlings, filmed commercials for Under Armour, and played Pine Valley and Augusta National in the same day.

In between, he became a crowd favorite, the Next Big Thing, and the envy (and inspiration) of college kids everywhere who hope their career trajectory will follow a similar path.

Newsmaker of the Year, No. 10: Vijay Singh

Newsmaker of the Year: Honorable mentions

Henrik Stenson: Articles, photos and videos

Ask Spieth, of course, and he’ll claim that his breakthrough 2013 was simply the product of good luck, that three fortunate hole-outs fueled his meteoric rise to No. 22 in the world rankings.

First there was the hole-in-one at the Puerto Rico Open. That third-round ace propelled him into contention at the opposite-field event, and he eventually finished one shot behind. The T-2 finish, however, got him into the next week’s tournament, which is no small consolation for a player trying to find his way.

Similar magic ensued the following week at the Tampa Bay Championship, where he again found himself in the mix on the final day. Needing to play the final two holes in 1 under to post another top-1o finish, Spieth holed a flop shot from a near-impossible spot on 17 to finish joint seventh and essentially lock up special temporary status on Tour for the remainder of the season.

No shot, however, was as spectacular – or as meaningful – as his bunker shot on the 72nd hole at the John Deere. It thrust him into a three-man playoff with Zach Johnson and David Hearn, and Spieth eventually prevailed on the fifth extra hole. He became the first teen to win on Tour since Ralph Guldahl in 1931, and the win gave him a two-year exemption, a spot in the following week’s Open, a date next April at the Masters and, not least, instant fame.

“It was funny looking back and noticing how many times I holed out where it was really important,” he said last week. “A lot of it required luck, so sometimes it’s better to be lucky.”

From Q-School flameout to competing with golf royalty? Sorry, Jordan, but that required a bit more than luck.

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Berger more than ready to rebound at Travelers

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:54 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Daniel Berger hopes that this year he gets to be on the other end of a viral moment at the Travelers Championship.

Berger was a hard-luck runner-up last year at TPC River Highlands, a spectator as Jordan Spieth holed a bunker shot to defeat him in a playoff. It was the second straight year that the 25-year-old came up just short outside Hartford, as he carried a three-shot lead into the 2016 event before fading to a tie for fifth.

While he wasn’t lacking any motivation after last year’s close call, Berger got another dose last week at the U.S. Open when he joined Tony Finau as a surprise participant in the final group Sunday, only to shoot a 73 and drift to a T-6 finish.

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

“It was one of the best experiences of my professional golf career so far. I feel like I’m going to be in such a better place next time I’m in that position, having felt those emotions and kind of gone through it,” Berger said. “There was a lot of reflection after that because I felt like I played good enough to get it done Sunday. I didn’t make as many putts as I wanted to, but I hit a lot of really good putts. And that’s really all you can do.”

Berger missed the cut earlier this month to end his quest for three straight titles in Memphis, but his otherwise consistent season has now included six top-20 finishes since January. After working his way into contention last week and still with a score to settle at TPC River Highlands, he’s eager to get back to work against another star-studded field.

“I think all these experiences you just learn from,” Berger said. “I think last week, having learned from that, I think that’s even going to make me a little better this week. So I’m excited to get going.”

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Rory tired of the near-misses, determined to close

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:46 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Rory McIlroy has returned to the Travelers Championship with an eye on bumping up his winning percentage.

McIlroy stormed from the back of the pack to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March, but that remains his lone worldwide win since the 2016 Tour Championship. It speaks to McIlroy’s considerable ability and lofty expectations that, even with a number of other high finishes this season, he is left unsatisfied.

“I feel like I’ve had five realistic chances to win this year, and I’ve been able to close out one of them. That’s a bit disappointing, I guess,” McIlroy said. “But at least I’ve given myself five chances to win golf tournaments, which is much more than I did last year.”

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

The most memorable of McIlroy’s near-misses is likely the Masters, when he played alongside Patrick Reed in Sunday’s final group but struggled en route to a T-5 finish. But more frustrating in the Ulsterman’s eyes were his runner-up at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, when he led by two shots with eight holes to go, and a second-place showing behind Francesco Molinari at the BMW PGA Championship in May.

“There’s been some good golf in there,” he said. “I feel like I let Dubai and Wentworth get away a little bit.”

He’ll have a chance to rectify that trend this week at TPC River Highlands, where he finished T-17 last year in his tournament debut and liked the course and the tournament enough to keep it on his schedule. It comes on the heels of a missed cut at the U.S. Open, when he was 10 over through 11 holes and never got on track. McIlroy views that result as more of an aberration during a season in which he has had plenty of chances to contend on the weekend.

“I didn’t necessarily play that badly last week. I feel like if I play similarly this week, I might have a good chance to win,” McIlroy said. “I think when you play in conditions like that, it magnifies parts of your game that maybe don’t stack up quite as good as the rest of your game, and it magnified a couple of things for me that I worked on over the weekend.”

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Sunday run at Shinnecock gave Reed even more confidence

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:08 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – While many big names are just coming around to the notion that the Travelers Championship is worth adding to the schedule, Patrick Reed has been making TPC River Highlands one of his favorite haunts for years.

Reed will make his seventh straight appearance outside Hartford, where he tied for fifth last year and was T-11 the year before that. He is eager to get back to the grind after a stressful week at the U.S. Open, both because of his past success here and because it will offer him a chance to build on a near-miss at Shinnecock Hills.

Reed started the final round three shots off the lead, but he quickly stormed toward the top of the leaderboard and became one of Brooks Koepka’s chief threats after birdies on five of his first seven holes. Reed couldn’t maintain the momentum in the middle of the round, carding three subsequent bogeys, and ultimately tied for fourth.

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

It was a bittersweet result, but Reed is focusing on the positives after taking a couple days to reflect.

“If you would have told me that I had a chance to win coming down Sunday, I would have been pleased,” Reed said. “I felt like I just made too many careless mistakes towards the end, and because of that, you’re not going to win at any major making careless mistakes, especially on Sunday.”

Reed broke through for his first major title at the Masters, and he has now finished fourth or better in three straight majors dating back to a runner-up at the PGA last summer. With another chance to add to that record next month in Scotland, he hopes to carry the energy from last week’s close call into this week’s event on a course where he feels right at home.

“It just gives me confidence, more than anything,” Reed said. “Of course I would have loved to have closed it out and win, but it was a great week all in all, and there’s a lot of stuff I can take from it moving forward. That’s how I’m looking at it.”

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Koepka back to work, looking to add to trophy collection

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 8:53 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Days after ensuring the U.S. Open trophy remained in his possession for another year, Brooks Koepka went back to work.

Koepka flew home to Florida after successfully defending his title at Shinnecock Hills, celebrating the victory Monday night with Dustin Johnson, Paulina Gretzky, swing coach Claude Harmon III and a handful of close friends. But he didn’t fully unwind because of a decision to honor his commitment to the Travelers Championship, becoming the first player to tee it up the week after a U.S. Open win since Justin Rose in 2013.

Koepka withdrew from the Travelers pro-am, but he flew north to Connecticut on Wednesday and arrived to TPC River Highlands around 3 p.m., quickly heading to the driving range to get in a light practice session.

“It still hasn’t sunk in, to be honest with you,” Koepka said. “I’m still focused on this week. It was just like, ‘All right, if I can get through this week, then I’m going to be hanging with my buddies next week.’ I know then maybe it’ll sink in, and I’ll get to reflect on it a little bit more.”

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Koepka’s plans next week with friends in Boston meant this week’s event outside Hartford made logistical sense. But he was also motivated to play this week because, plainly, he hasn’t had that many playing opportunities this year after missing nearly four months with a wrist injury.

“I’ve had so many months at home being on the couch. I don’t need to spend any more time on the couch,” Koepka said. “As far as skipping, it never crossed my mind.”

Koepka’s legacy was undoubtedly bolstered by his win at Shinnecock, as he became the first player in nearly 30 years to successfully defend a U.S. Open title. But he has only one other PGA Tour win to his credit, that being the 2015 Waste Management Phoenix Open, and his goal for the rest of the season is to make 2018 his first year with multiple trophies on the mantle.

“If you’re out here for more than probably 15 events, it gives you a little better chance to win a couple times. Being on the sidelines isn’t fun,” Koepka said. “Keep doing what we’re doing and just try to win multiple times every year. I feel like I have the talent. I just never did it for whatever reason. Always felt like we ran into a buzzsaw. So just keep plugging away.”