Walking cautiously past a group of photographers gathered on the far edge of the Congressional Country Club driving range earlier this week, Jordan Spieth turned his head to locate the source of the commotion.
There was Tiger Woods, working his way through his bag, taking his first swings in public since undergoing neck surgery almost three months ago.
“Oh, everybody’s hanging out here,” Spieth deadpanned. “That’s weird.”
What Spieth didn’t consider — or, perhaps, didn’t notice — was the group of fans hanging off the green metal barrier minutes earlier, all clamoring for him.
Woods, golf’s biggest superstar, may have his fan base, but in modern society, what’s new is what’s popular, and the 20-year-old Spieth is quickly gathering a following.
Launched into the winners’ circle for the first time last July, when he entered the John Deere Classic as a special temporary tour member and won it in a playoff, Spieth has achieved considerable success.
He has, this season, finished in the top 10 in six of his 18 events, including a runner-up finish at the Masters in April, and enters the Quicken Loans National at Congressional this week ranked sixth in FedEx Cup points and ninth in the official world golf rankings.
Most notably, he has handled his triumphs with a significant measure of modesty, with several players praising his respect for the game and the way he has handled his growing notoriety.
Even President Barack Obama chided Spieth during a program Tuesday at the White House honoring last year’s Presidents Cup teams, teasing that the catering staff “might card him later at the reception.”
“He’s been playing great,” said Woods, who was grouped with Spieth for the first two rounds of the Farmers Insurance Open in January and will play with him again Thursday and Friday.
“For a person to have come out of college and done this well this fast, and been as consistent — normally when you’re young, you come out and you have your weeks from here to there, and you may have two, three good weeks a year, maybe more. It just seems like he’s having one every week.”
Breakout season at age 19
A two-time winner of the U.S. Junior Amateur — the first player to do so since Woods nearly 20 years earlier — Spieth enrolled at the University of Texas in 2011, helping the Longhorns win the NCAA championship before turning professional midway through his sophomore year.
After a pair of top-10 finishes on the second-tier Web.com Tour early in 2013, Spieth received a sponsor’s exemption into the Farmers Insurance Open, where he shot 1-over par and missed the cut by two strokes.
His season quickly picked up. After tying for 22nd at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am two weeks later, Spieth put together a pair of top-10 finishes, qualifying him for unlimited sponsors’ exemptions for the rest of the season.
Spieth received one to play at Congressional last year, when the event was known as the AT&T National, and finished in sixth place, holding a share of the lead heading into the weekend. It wasn’t until three weeks later at the John Deere Classic in Silvis, Illinois, when Spieth finally got his break, holding off Zach Johnson and David Hearn on the fifth hole of a playoff to become, at 19, the youngest winner on the PGA Tour since 1931.
That victory qualified him for full PGA Tour membership status and the FedEx Cup playoffs, where he wrapped up the season by tying for second at The Tour Championship in September and finishing seventh in the FedEx Cup standings.
He ended his year in October by representing the United States in the Presidents Cup, when he was selected by captain Fred Couples and became the youngest player to participate in the biennial event in its 19-year history.
But it wasn’t until the Masters this year, when he was in the final pairing on Sunday with eventual winner Bubba Watson, that more casual observers began to take notice. He finished the event three strokes back of Watson, with their duel for the green jacket ending after Spieth’s approach on the par-3 11th rolled off the green and into the water.
“It’s been a great start to my career, but at the same time, in order to get to a high level and win championships, I’ve got to work harder and harder and harder,” Spieth said. “I’m humbled by the [performances in the] majors and the former No. 1s that are around all the time and what they’ve achieved. I guess that’s a way to look forward and not be satisfied.”
‘Old head on young shoulders’
What has set Spieth apart from his peers has been, undeniably, his maturity.
Earlier this week, while signing autographs, Spieth recognized a fan seeking his signature and scolded him for trying to make a profit. Minutes later, while talking about how his parents, Shawn and Chris, raised him to be humble, he abruptly cut off his story mid-sentence.
“Me speaking about humility is very difficult, because it wouldn’t be humility,” Spieth said.
Spieth has found perspective not just in his successes and his failures, but also at home. His sister, Ellie, is on the autism spectrum, and he has often said that she helps reinforce how fortunate he is to be playing golf professionally.
Ernie Els — whose son, Ben, is autistic — has noticed how the disorder has shaped Spieth. The two have played together at the last three World Golf Championship events and have used the occasions to share their stories.
“He’s got an old head on young shoulders,” Els said. “I know you guys have heard that a million times, but in his case, he understands the game at a young age. He’s cocky enough that he knows he’s good, but he doesn’t think that he knows everything. He’s ready to learn still, but I like his competitiveness.”
Though he enters this weekend having played in 18 of the last 25 events, Spieth found it important to return to Congressional as a means of giving back to tournament organizers for giving him his first opportunity in 2012.
When he steps to the 10th tee on Thursday morning, he’ll be joined by Jason Day and, fittingly, by Woods. He laughed this week when asked how he feels about playing with Woods.
“It’ll be fun,” he said. “Tiger, being one of the greatest of all time, if not the greatest of all time, and Jason, well on his way to a Hall of Fame career himself — I’m honored to stand beside the two on the tee, and I’ll get out there and compete as hard as I can to win the golf tournament.”