ATLANTA — How young is the youngest player ever to climb the ladder to the Tour Championship?
Jordan Spieth is younger than just about every member of the boy band One Direction.
While he has earned the right to belly up to every sumptuous buffet table on the PGA Tour — “trying to learn to control myself with those, that’s been a change,” he said — he is still about 10 months away from hitting the clubhouse bar.
Such an awkward age. “I’m kind of in the middle ground that nobody really cares about, between being a teenager and being 21,” he said.
So young that the median annual income for his Hamburger Helper/thrift-shop-wardrobe demographic group is a little more than $17,000. Spieth has done somewhat better in his first year of professional golf, his earnings coming into East Lake topping $3 million.
So young that his face and his club face bear an equal amount of stubble. Younger than the term “email.” Younger than a certain up-and-comer named Eldrick Woods the first time he won a PGA Tour event.
Turning pro in December, then turning 20 in July, the kid has been rushed to the front lines of the PGA Tour ahead of any sane schedule. “At the beginning of the season, my kind of lofty goal was to earn my PGA Tour card for the 2014 season,” he said.
He would have been happy preparing for next week’s Web.com championship, trying to earn those playing privileges the hard way. Instead, he will be at East Lake, an equal among the 29 other hottest players on the planet, chasing a seven- to eight-figure payday.
A 20-year-old ranks 13th in the FedEx Cup points standings, above Jason Dufner, above Sergio Garcia, above Luke Donald, above Keegan Bradley.
A player who began 2013 without any automatic entry to any event, ranked 810th in the world, today enjoys full Tour privileges and a No. 30 world ranking.
And he’s loving every blessed second of it.
“’We’re very spoiled,” Spieth said of himself and his professional peers.
“This week, there are only 30 guys on the course in the purest condition. And we don’t have to pay to play it. We get paid to play it. Just adapting to that week to week has been a little different.”
Shoot, while he’s here, he might as well make some noise.
“I didn’t think (the Tour Championship) would be a possibility this year at the beginning of the year,” he said, “but now that I’m here, it’s time to maybe make something special happen.
“I like the look of this golf course. I love the greens. I think it’s going to be a really cool opportunity for me, I think I’ve been playing well (enough) leading up to the last few weeks to maybe make a run at it.”
Spieth’s precociousness showed itself when he was a 16-year-old hometown Dallas kid who played as an amateur in the Byron Nelson Classic. He finished 16th. “He didn’t seem afraid of anything,” Corey Pavin said after playing with him there in 2010.
Another pro got to know him this summer when Spieth holed out from the bunker on the 72nd hole at the John Deere Classic to force his way into a three-way playoff, which he eventually won. Here comes another “youngest” distinction: Spieth became the youngest winner on the PGA Tour since 1931.
“The first thing that comes to my mind — and I would assume my peers who have gotten to know him at least somewhat think the same — is mature,” said Zach Johnson, one of Spieth’s playoff victims.
“I know he’s 20, and I’m sure there are things that he’s doing that I was doing when I was 20,” Johnson continued. “But it seems to me that his mental approach and how he plays is extremely mature, just very well-constructed.
“Phenom is a big word, but if he’s not a phenom, he certainly is close.”
While he has made it look easy playing up in age, Spieth says some of that is illusion. “I’m very clumsy,” he said. “I guess I kind of have to adapt to act the way these guys do at their age.”
After one year playing college golf at Texas — and winning an NCAA title — Spieth decided he could wait no longer to play with the big boys. He had a plan. He would cherry-pick a couple of sponsors’ exemptions early, pop into a couple of events at the Triple-A level, the Web.com Tour, and gradually build a platform for his career.
Now, put that plan in a centrifuge and turn it on high.
By March he had a partial Tour exemption after finishes of second in Puerto Rico and seventh in the Tampa Bay Championship. Another top-10 finish at the RBC Heritage the next month gained him full-exempt status. He kept piling up strong finishes, including the victory at the John Deere, until he was a surprise force in the FedEx Cup points race.
His finishes at the three playoff events leading to the Tour Championship — 19th, 4th, 16th — have not betrayed his age or inexperience. In the meantime, he also was a captain’s pick for the upcoming President’s Cup. The average age of the other 11 members of the U.S. team is 34.8 years old.
“These next three weeks are the most important weeks of the year for me. I couldn’t be more excited for them,” he said.
But, by now, Spieth can approach them as a wizened vet.
Here is the hurry-up kid preaching the virtues of taking it slowly and deliberately. “The only time I’ve really gotten myself in trouble this year is when I tried to do too much,” he said. “It’s a matter of just being patient on and off the course.”
They grow up so fast, don’t they?
Steve Hummer writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Email: steve(at)ajc.com.
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