From improbable hole-outs to an 'idiotic' decision: Looking back at Jordan Spieth's path to PGA TOUR membership
It seems unfathomable now, in light of all that he’s accomplished, but Jordan Spieth was hitting striped range balls off an artificial-turf mat as he warmed up for his first round as a professional. “It was probably 40 degrees, the range balls were rock hard. I remember thinking, ‘Man, this is something else,’” Spieth recalls. “My 4-iron would go 100 yards and hit into this hill. I couldn't get any rise out of the golf balls.” He was preparing for the Thursday pre-qualifier for the 2013 Farmers Insurance Open, i.e. the qualifier for the Monday qualifier. He had a handful of PGA TOUR starts awaiting him, but on this day the future major winner was competing against guys clinging to the lowest rungs of professional golf’s ladder. The hype and hoopla surrounding a player’s pro debut vary greatly, and depend on myriad circumstances, but this scene was closer to “Tin Cup” than “Hello World.” Spieth’s detour wouldn’t last long, though. He would be a PGA TOUR member exactly two months later. Four successful weeks in four different countries – and a risky decision that one player deemed “idiotic” – set his career on its historic trajectory. Five years later, Spieth owns 11 PGA TOUR titles, including three majors, and a FedExCup. He's the defending champion of this week's AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, the tournament where in 2013 he cashed his first check as a pro. The anniversary of his rookie season offers the perfect occasion to revisit the opening weeks of his career. His performance in those early events offered a harbinger of later heroics, as he summoned the improbable hole-outs and fortitude under duress that have defined his career. There also were moments during those early days that seem humorously quaint in hindsight. Back in 2013, he was a teenager embarking on an uncertain journey. His sidekick was a caddie, Michael Greller, who weeks earlier was teaching math and science to sixth-graders. They celebrated Spieth’s first taste of PGA TOUR status – which he earned with a chip-in on the 17th hole – by playing Texas Hold ‘Em with Spieth’s father, Shawn, and agent, Jay Danzi, in the lobby of their hotel. Spieth had earned more than $500,000 over the previous four weeks, but now he was playing for peanuts. Peanut M&Ms, specifically, were the stakes in this card game. The options for post-round celebrations are limited for 19-year-olds, after all. Spieth’s achievements later that year – his win at the John Deere Classic, close call at the TOUR Championship and captain’s pick for the Presidents Cup – may have overshadowed these early events, but their importance should not be understated. They provided the foundation for his future success. "I would have never guessed things would happen so quickly," Spieth said recently. "It’s pretty unbelievable. Not everything went exactly according to plan. ... (I've) taken the blows and the triumphs as they've come and learned from each one. “It’s been an amazing journey. It really has." This is how it began. 'I'M HERE TO DO MY JOB' Spieth seems destined to be a World Golf Hall of Famer, but even in today’s media-saturated environment there is little record of the start of his career. It began on Jan. 17, 2013, and on a victorious note. His 66 at El Camino Country Club in Oceanside, California, was the day’s low score. His presence at the pre-qualifier was due to his uncommon career path. Most prospects wait until June to turn professional, but Spieth made the leap in December without the safety net of status on a pro tour. Status-less players who haven’t made a cut in that calendar year are subject to the pre-qualifiers. Spieth first played a weekend on the PGA TOUR at age 16, but because the calendar had just changed, he had to join the mini-tour players, amateurs and club pros who make up the majority of the field in a Thursday qualifier. Spieth’s two playing partners that day, Greg O’Mahony and Alex Ching, no longer play professional golf full-time. O’Mahony works for Celtic Golf, which organizes European golf vacations, while Ching is a financial analyst in San Diego. O’Mahony's younger brother, Hunter, had been paired with Spieth in the previous year's U.S. Amateur. The elder O'Mahony was impressed that the teen phenom asked about his brother, and even more impressed with Spieth’s tee shot on one of the course’s par-3s, a “chippy” 8-iron that bounced up a ridge and onto the small, back portion of the green where the hole was located. "It was a sweet little knockdown," O'Mahony says. "I thought, 'Alright, this kid has a lot of shots.'" Spieth knew that a sponsor exemption into the Farmers Insurance Open was likely coming his way, but that didn’t change his outlook on the round. O'Mahony remembers Spieth carried himself differently than a lot of the players he's seen in those Thursday qualifiers, and Greller carried a staff bag while many players opted for lighter options. “He took it very seriously and very professionally, like, ‘I’m here to do my job.’ He handled himself like a TOUR player,” O’Mahony says. “His relationship with Greller was unreal good. It was like they had worked together for 20 years.” O’Mahony hadn’t played a practice round for the pre-qualifier – he remembers the course being closed the day before for a private outing – so he tried to glean information from the conversations between Spieth and Greller, who rode a cart that day. “I’d been teaching sixth grade just a few weeks prior and all of a sudden I’m cruising around in a cart with Jordan, thinking, ‘I have the coolest job in the world,’” Greller says. Greller and Spieth had been successful in their two previous events together. Spieth won the 2011 U.S. Junior in Greller’s home state of Washington and was low amateur at the 2012 U.S. Open. When Spieth asked him to become his full-time caddie, Greller wrote a three-page letter to his school board requesting a one-year leave of absence. He detailed his dream of caddying in the upcoming U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, where he’d looped during summers. Little did he know he’d be on the victor’s bag two years later. After their success in the pre-qualifier, Greller and Spieth spent the weekend playing golf. The stakes were high for the caddie. Spieth promised he’d drop his nickname for Greller after his first birdie. “He called me ‘Scrub’ because apparently I didn’t dress the part of a well-dressed caddie back then,” Greller recalls. “I was putting a lot of pressure on myself because it was driving me nuts that he was calling me that. He was ribbing me, as he does.” It took 16 holes, but Greller finally rid himself of the nickname. His 15-footer led to the demise of “Scrub.” THE DEBUT Spieth’s 68 in the Monday qualifier was two strokes too high to earn a spot in the Farmers Insurance Open. No problem. Tournament director Peter Ripa had called Danzi during the round to tell him a sponsor exemption was available. Spieth's pro debut went quietly, and quickly. There was no pre-tournament press conference announcing his arrival. He made just four birdies over 36 holes and missed the cut by two shots. Spieth and Greller were roommates that week, ducking out to FaceTime their significant others and struggling to keep straight everything they'd need for Spieth's first PGA TOUR start as a pro. “If there was a video camera on us, it would've been laughable watching us trying to get organized,” Spieth says. This was Greller's first TOUR event as a full-time caddie, as well. He recalls trying to take "paparazzi" cell-phone photos in the player parking lot as Tiger Woods pulled his clubs out his trunk. "I thought it was the coolest thing, being that close to Tiger Woods," Greller says. A few months later, Spieth and Woods would be Presidents Cup teammates. Spieth was paired with two Web.com Tour graduates, Peter Tomasulo and Richard Lee. On Thursday, they teed at 11 a.m. local time from the North Course’s 10th tee. “I remember exactly how I played the first hole because I thought to myself, ‘This is the first hole of what I’m going to be doing hopefully for the rest of my life,’” Spieth says. A 3-wood into the right rough was followed by an 8-iron to the front of the green. He two-putted from approximately 15 feet for an easy par. He shot a first-round 72 on the easier of Torrey Pines' two courses, making three birdies and three bogeys. "It was my first pro round, and I knew it, and maybe that was what held me back that day versus playing it like a normal round you do at home," Spieth says. "I'd played eight (PGA TOUR) tournaments before as an amateur, but when you say that you’re a pro and you don’t have the 'a' next to your name, it’s a different feeling teeing off for the first time. "I just remember trying to fight hard, my emotions were up and down. Michael will tell you it was the hardest week to caddie for me all year. ... It was my first professional start and I was freaking out a little bit." He followed with a second-round 73 in windy, rainy weather on the longer South Course. Spieth had spent more than a week in San Diego, but didn’t earn a dime for his efforts. The two qualifying rounds, and the missed cut, gave him a brief look at the less-glamorous side of pro golf. It only burnished his desire to earn his spot on TOUR, and quickly. “I felt like my best golf really could compete on the highest level, and I really didn’t want to go through anything less than the highest level,” Spieth says. “Having a real limited, tiny experience of it was still enough to know that I wanted to be out there with the big guys.” Spieth’s first paycheck came in his next start. He earned $65,000 for his T22 at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. Then it was off to Central America for the start of a four-week stretch that would change his career. THE DECISION Spieth’s career was set on the correct course in a clubhouse in Colombia. After finishing T7 at the Web.com Tour's season-opening event in Panama, Spieth followed with a fourth-place showing in Colombia. His finish earned him a start in the following week's event in Chile and only about $4,000 short of earning status for the remainder of the season. One problem. He also had an invitation to the PGA TOUR’s Puerto Rico Open. It was the first invitation he’d been given, back on New Year’s Eve. Spieth weighed his options inside the Golf Club de Bogota’s clubhouse. “John Peterson was in there, some of the tour officials were in there, saying, ‘Hey man, this is the smart thing to do. You need to go down to Chile and get your (Web.com Tour) card,” Spieth says. Spieth wanted to honor his commitment to the Puerto Rico Open, though. He also had about a dozen friends and family coming to the island to watch him play. Its tropical locale, and the fact that it coincided with Spring Break. made it the ideal destination. “The blessing in disguise was that all those people had booked flights and I almost felt bad, so therefore I made my decision (to go to Puerto Rico),” Spieth says. Peterson clearly remembers his reaction. “I was like, ‘OK, you’re an idiot,’” he says. “Turns out I was the idiot.” Greller was glad to go to Puerto Rico. He had confidence in his player, but also didn’t have an international calling plan for his cell phone. Another week in South America would have meant another week he’d be unable to call home. “If he goes to Chile and gets his card locked up, now he’s on the Web.com Tour the rest of the year,” Greller says. “There’s no John Deere. No second-place finish at East Lake. No Presidents Cup. It looks a lot different.” Spieth’s camp had started a tradition that called for Danzi to treat Spieth and Greller to dinner after each top-10. McDonald’s was the site of their celebratory dinner in Colombia as they headed to the airport. After an overnight layover in Panama City, they arrived in San Juan around noon Monday. It took more than 12 hours to get from Colombia to Puerto Rico, but it would be worth it. THE PAYOFF When Puerto Rico Open tournament chairman Sidney Wolf emailed Spieth to offer him a sponsor’s exemption, he wrote: “Throughout your stellar amateur career, you have proven that you are more than ready to compete at the highest level of professional golf. We are pleased to give you that opportunity, and are confident that you will not only strengthen our tournament field, but add a great deal of excitement to the competition.” It’s doubtful even Wolf could foresee what would happen that week. Spieth was on the fringes of contention as he made the turn in the third round. At the 203-yard, par-3 11th, he opted for 4-iron into a strong wind. His tee shot hit the middle of the green and rolled some 30 feet before dropping in the hole, causing an uproar among the same people who’d inspired him to come to Puerto Rico in the first place. “There were maybe a dozen people there, which was all his family and friends,” Greller remembered recently. “As soon as it left the clubface it was flush, all over it. I remember those 12 people all going nuts.” Spieth birdied the final two holes for a 67 that left him in third place, four shots off the lead. By the 14th hole Sunday, he saw he was tied for the lead. He played his remaining holes even par, though. A 12-foot birdie putt on the final hole gave him an outside chance at victory, but he would fall one shot short of winner Scott Brown, with whom he’d played the final round of the previous week’s Web.com Tour event. “I was feeling the heat and hit good putts,” Spieth said after the round. “That was the biggest thing, my hands stayed good under pressure with the putter.” Steve Lebrun, Spieth’s final-round playing partner, was impressed with the teenager’s poise. “It looked like he was ready to be there. It was one of those destiny things. He’d been waiting for that opportunity and he wasn’t going to let it pass,” Lebrun said recently. “He was calmly rolling in putts left and right.” Spieth’s tie for second earned him $308,000 and a start in the following week’s Valspar Championship. After flirting with the lead for part of the final round, Spieth needed a clutch finish at Innisbrook to secure special temporary membership on the PGA TOUR. That would allow him to accept unlimited sponsor exemptions for the remainder of the season. He arrived on the tee box at the par-3 17th projected to finish $195 short of the money needed for membership. He knew he needed to birdie one of the final two holes. Alas, his tee shot at the 17th missed the green. Offering a preview of what we would see several times over the next five years, he holed the 50-foot flop shot, sending the hospitality tents around the green into hysterics. After the round, he called it "one of the coolest shots I’ve ever hit." (Two years later, he holed a long birdie putt to the same hole location to win a dramatic playoff over Patrick Reed. The 2015 Valspar Championship was his second TOUR title, coming a month before he won the Masters.) Following the flop shot, Spieth knew he needed par at the final hole to protect his position. His approach shot at the 18th, however, found the greenside bunker. He needed to get up-and-down. No problem. His blasted out of the bunker to 7 feet, then drained the par putt, pumping his fist when the ball fell. His winnings that week at the 2013 Valspar -- $148,893 – were more than enough to secure his status. “As I walked off, I remember seeing TV coverage and I’m grinning ear-to-ear for making a par to finish seventh,” he recalls. “I knew exactly what that meant at the time. It meant that I had a job on the PGA TOUR.” The whirlwind journey of the previous four weeks was complete. Tough decisions had been made; tough shots had been holed. He was now a PGA TOUR member. His first victory was just four months away.
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