Sun Sentinel Broward Edition

Spi­eth looks to con­tinue his­toric sea­son at Play­ers

- By Edgar Thomp­son

A year ago, Jor­dan Spi­eth had the mak­ings of golf’s next star, yet the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties of a 20-year-old find­ing his way on the PGA Tour.

Spi­eth since has evolved into a Tiger Woods-like closer and leader­board fix­ture

Win­ning last month’s Masters by four strokes, Spi­eth joined Woods as the only player since World War II to win three times, with at least one ma­jor, prior to turn­ing 22.

“Jor­dan at his age to be do­ing what he’s do­ing, it’s very spe­cial,” long­time NBC an­a­lyst Johnny Miller said. “It’s amaz­ing to watch. It re­ally is.”

This week, Spi­eth re­turns to The Play­ers Cham­pi­onship look­ing to do what he did last month at Au­gusta Na­tional, where he purged the pre­vi­ous year’s dis­ap­point­ment and won dur­ing just his sec­ond ap­pear­ance in the event.

A month af­ter he shared the 54-hole lead at the 2014 Masters, Spi­eth was in the same po­si­tion at TPC Saw­grass. But af­ter go­ing bo­geyfree through three rounds, Spi­eth slipped out of con­tention again, card­ing five fi­nal-round bo­geys to fin­ish three shots be­hind win­ner Martin Kaymer.

Im­me­di­ately af­ter his round, the fiery Spi­eth did not hide his emo­tions.

“I’m not ma­ture enough to be ex­tremely pos­i­tive,” he said at the time. “I will be in about an hour, but right now it’s just re­ally, re­ally stings.”

Designer Pete Dye’s tricky lay­out long has stung the game’s best play­ers, in­clud­ing Woods and Phil Mick­el­son. Each has won the event, but has com­bined for just seven top-10 fin­ishes in 36 starts.

Be­fore he rose to world No. 1, Rory McIl­roy skipped the 2011 Play­ers af­ter he said the pre­vi­ous fall, “I don’t like the course.”

But un­til his fi­nal-round 74 last May, Spi­eth tamed TPC Saw­grass and left Ponte Ve­dra Beach with gen­er­ally good vibes.

“I was ex­tremely com­fort­able on this golf course,” he said.

Dye’s par-72 lay­out mea­sures 7,215 yards — mea­ger by to­day’s stan­dards on Tour. TPC Saw­grass de­mands a player hit fair­ways, con­tin­u­ally shape shots and be spot-on with his short game.

No player right now man­ages his game or sinks more putts than Spi­eth, who leads the Tour in putts per round and scor­ing av­er­age.

“The rarest thing in golf is the guy who makes the pres­sure putts,” Miller said. “If he keeps the put­ter go­ing, re­ally the sky’s the limit.”

Ranked be­hind only McIl­roy, Spi­eth has been can­did that he plans to sup­plant the world’s No.1 player, set­ting the stage for a ri­valry for years to come.

Miller, a 25-time win­ner dur­ing his Hall of Fame ca­reer, fa­vors Spi­eth’s con­sis­tency slightly over McIl­roy’s ex­plo­sive­ness. Dur­ing a re­cent four-week stretch, Spi­eth won the Masters and Tampa’s Valspar Cham­pi­onship, and fin­ished run­ner-up in San An­to­nio and Hous­ton.

When McIl­roy, a four­time ma­jor cham­pion at age 25, is on his game he even­tu­ally over­whelms the com­pe­ti­tion.

McIl­roy came from be­hind dur­ing three straight matches to win the fi­nals of this past week­end’s WGC-Cadil­lac Match Play. Dur­ing the semi­fi­nals, McIl­roy was 4-un­der on the fi­nal three holes to chase down vet­eran Jim Furyk.

“Rory on cer­tain weeks might dust Jor­dan Spi­eth,” Miller said. “But I think day in and day out, Jor­dan’s prob­a­bly a lit­tle bet­ter player than Rory right now.”

Spi­eth failed to get out of pool play and ad­vance to the round of16, los­ing 2-down to for­mer world No. 1 Lee West­wood. But Spi­eth was 16-un­der par dur­ing three matches at San Fran­cisco’s dif­fi­cult Harding Park and is primed to con­tend at TPC Saw­grass.

“I’m happy with the way I’m play­ing and I’m ex­cited for next week,” he said.

The world of golf is equally ex­cited to see what Spi­eth does next. Based on the past six weeks, it could be his­toric, akin to Woods, McIl­roy and Jack Nick­laus at the same age.

“I think four years from now we’ll be look­ing at Jor­dan Spi­eth and go­ing, ‘Who is the next Jor­dan Spi­eth?’” Golf Chan­nel an­a­lyst Bran­del Cham­blee said.

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