Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Earning His Keep: Jordan Spieth's Life Changes by the Minute

Earning His Keep: Jordan Spieth's Life Changes by the Minute


Ryan Ballengee July 15, 2013 12:08 PM

COMMENTARY | It's a true Cinderella story. No, not "Caddyshack."

Jordan Spieth began the year merely as a hotshot kid wearing a pumpkin-colored shirt and, after winning the John Deere Classic on in a playoff on Sunday, now he has a chariot of a charter plane taking him to the ball that is the Open Championship, golf's oldest major.

The 19-year-old, who turns 20 on July 27, outlasted 2007 Masters champion Zach Johnson and Canadian David Hearn in a five-hole playoff to become the first teenager to win in a PGA Tour-recognized event in 82 years. That's back before the PGA Tour was its own organization, separate from the PGA of America.

Needless to say, things like this simply don't happen.

Spieth began 2013 without any status on the PGA Tour. None.

To survive and earn a livelihood, Spieth, fresh off leading the University of Texas to the NCAA men's golf championship, would have to rely on the kindness of strangers and sponsor's exemptions to set some kind of schedule.

If he played well enough in those rare opportunities to shine, then maybe the two-time U.S. Junior Amateur champion could earn enough money to get some kind of security for next season. Doing that alone would be an amazing accomplishment, but with a truncated season due to a new PGA Tour calendar, time was especially of the essence.

Spieth began to prove himself in very little time. In March, Spieth finished T-2 at the Puerto Rico Open, the event played opposite the WGC-Cadillac Championship. The $308,000 check was earned against a lesser field -- the big boys were at Doral on the U.S. mainland -- but it was a sign of things to come. It also afforded him an automatic start at the Tampa Bay Championship.

Spieth finished T-7 at Innisbrook. Another six-figure check for almost $150,000. Another earned start, this time in Houston.

The small check from Houston put him over the threshold to earn special temporary membership on the PGA Tour, affording him the chance to take unlimited sponsor's exemptions through the end of the year. No longer limited to accepting just seven invitations to play, the rising star would no longer have to plot where and when he would compete.

A month later, he finished T-9 at the RBC Heritage. It wasn't the Masters, like the week prior, but it was another sign of what was coming.

After moving sideways for a month, Spieth found himself with an outside chance at Colonial. He finished T-7, but practically locked up his 2014 PGA Tour card through the nonmember money list. The biggest goal had been achieved.

A win was really the only thing left for Spieth. It would give him automatic PGA Tour status, a two-year exemption and a chance to chase the FedEx Cup. Despite all of his great play, only PGA Tour members can compete in the Playoffs. Nothing short of a victory would offer Spieth that chance.

A month after Colonial, Spieth was seriously in the mix for the AT&T National title, but the third-round pressure caught up with him, as he ballooned to a 74 that left him to fight for a sixth-place finish.

A week later at Greenbrier, it was the final round, a 73, that got Spieth unglued.

It only took Spieth 14 days to learn how to win. The Texan opened with a benign 70 at TPC Deere Run, but then took it to the Silvis, Ill. course. Three consecutive 65s, including five birdies in his final six holes, landed him in a playoff with two guys nearly twice his age. It turned out playing five playoff holes in even par was good enough to win.

When the 18-inch par putt to win at the 18th hole fell, Spieth had his victory. With it, he found the only path he had left to next week's Open Championship -- a tournament tailor-made for a kid from Texas.

Now instead of wondering how he might spend the better part of August and all of September, Spieth's calendar has filled quickly. He earned a spot in the PGA Championship. He'll be in the WGC-Firestone Invitational.

Spieth is not only in the FedEx Cup playoffs, but he's a contender to win the whole thing. He is retroactively credited with all of the FedEx Cup points he would have earned earlier in the year and now sits 11th in the standings.

The soon-to-be-20-year-old can continue to go for broke this year. Maybe that's a bad turn of phrase. Spieth has made $2 million this year with the possible to earn millions more before season's end. In fact, the rookie could take home $10 million and the FedEx Cup in September.

It's said the man with nothing to lose is often the most dangerous. With $2 million in his pocket, a two-yearPGA Tour exemption, a spot in the next three major championships, Jordan Spieth still has more to gain in 2013. That could mean his finest hour is still yet to come. And, unlike for Cinderella, midnight will not strike anytime soon.

Ryan Ballengee is a Washington, D.C.-based golf writer. His work has appeared on multiple digital outlets, including NBC Sports and Golf Channel. Follow him on Twitter @RyanBallengee.

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