Spieth Shines in Bryon Nelson after Struggling to Share State Title the Week Before

By: Steve Habel

The golf world is all aflutter about the performance of 16-year-old amateur Jordan Spieth during the Byron Nelson Classic, and there is - without a doubt - a lot for which Spieth should be proud.

Those close to Spieth might tell you the junior at Jesuit College Preparatory School in Dallas was motivated by the way he played - and the result - from the week before in the Texas Class 5A State Championship in Austin. Count Cory Whitsett, the player Spieth tied for the state title, with a huge assist to Spieth in the PGA Tour event at TPC Los Colinas in Irving.

Spieth became the sixth-youngest player to make the cut at a PGA Tour event, then finished in a tie for 16th at 4-under-par 276 after rounds of 68, 69, 67 and 72 on the demanding 7,166-yard par-70 track.

Golf fans in the area took notice, as Spieth and playing partner Corey Pavin, the U.S. Ryder Cup captain who ended up being beaten by the teenager by a stroke, had the largest gallery of the day.

Eventual champion Jason Day, playing alongside Blake Adams, said it looked like there were a thousand people following Spieth in the final round. "I was walking to the fourth hole," Day said, "and I turned to Blake and said, 'There are more people following that young amateur than us.' "

After making the cut Spieth - who has said he will attend the University of Texas and wore a Longhorn Golf hat during the tournament - fashioned a brilliant third-round performance, battling hot winds that confused many players en route to a 3-under-par 67 while competing alongside Tour veteran Tom Pernice Jr.

Pernice, 50, was the oldest player in the field, while Spieth the youngest. "It was the greatest thing," Pernice said in describing Spieth's play and the thousands of spectators who watched it, swing by swing. "The only sad thing is, I wish Byron Nelson were alive to see it."

Nelson died in 2006, but those who knew him said he would have loved the way Spieth played and handled the hullabaloo. Nelson, the tournament's namesake and one of the legendary good guys in the game of golf, won 54 tournaments, including five major championships. Spieth has captured two Byron Nelson Junior titles, and has often said that no PGA Tour event meant as much to him as the one named after the gentleman rancher from Texas.

While the crowds were not as large May 13 and 14 at Jimmy Clay Golf Course in Austin for the Class 5A state golf championship, the stakes - at least in Spieth's mind - were even higher.

Those who witnessed the final round May 14 will swear they saw one of the greatest golf shots hit in competition under extreme pressure by any player on any level, but the record books will never document it.

Instead, the 2010 individual portion of the event will list Spieth and Houston Memorial's Cory Whitsett - two of the most celebrated junior amateur golfers in a state known for producing top-shelf talent - as co-medalists. For that you can thank a 5-hour rain and lightning delay that reduced the scholastic championships to 27 holes.

Spieth, playing in the second group of the day, and Whitsett, in the first wave of players in the team competition, were tied at 5-under-par 103 after completing half of the final round. The pair both eventually finished all 36 scheduled holes, but five groups of competitors in the team event did not make it to the end because of the delay. University Interscholastic League (UIL) officials reduced the event to only the set of holes that all players had finished, and at that point, Spieth and Whitsett were deadlocked.

If all 18 holes of the final round had been counted, Whitsett would have posted a two-day total of 9-under-par 135 to Spieth's 136. How Whitsett, the 2007 U.S. Junior Amateur champion and a University of Alabama commitment, would have won is a story that will go down in state championship lore.

Leading by a stroke after 17 holes, Whitsett pushed his drive on 18 into the lake left. After a drop, he had 217 yards to the hole. From there his shot needed to climb over a stand of trees, hook about 20 yards and carry the water hazard and a sand bunker left-front of the green. His shot was high and soft and ended up just inches from the hole. He tapped in for par and, seemingly, had won the state championship.

"It felt like a 5-iron to me and I just committed to the shot and put a good swing on it," Whitsett said. "It's retarded that the back nine didn't count because we both made it around and we were way out in front of everyone else."

Whitsett finished second at state in 2007, won the 5A title in 2008 and ended up fourth last year. "It really isn't right or fair that the tournament ended this way," he said. "We both finished 18 holes and basically had a nine-hole playoff. They should count it."

Officials from UIL, the governing body for high school sports in Texas, said contingencies for rain were detailed at the tournament's coaches' meeting before the event even started. They said lightning and rain have affected the state golf tournament only two other times in its long history.

No one wanted to stop playing when the rains came, least of all Spieth. "I didn't get off to a good start, with bogeys on 1 and 3 and a short missed birdie putt on 2," he said. "I knew Cory was going to come out firing, so I had to start making birdies."

Spieth, the defending Texas 5A state champion and current U.S. Junior Amateur titleholder, did just that, with birdies on three of his next four holes before the rains came. But he thought he'd thrown the tournament away on the 407-yard par-4 ninth.

"I had a 4-footer for birdie on nine, and I missed it, and I thought then I had blown the tournament," Spieth said. "If the tournament was going to be reduced to 27 holes, and we were aware that that could be the case, I needed to make that birdie on nine. That one putt made a difference in winning the tournament outright and sharing the title."

Spieth returned to school this week and is working hard to make up for the eight days of studies and tests he missed the past two weeks. He learned a bevy of lessons under the intense pressure of a big-time PGA Tour event.

"I definitely loved being able to learn from the guys I was playing with, and just on and off the course, seeing how they were approaching their pre-round routine and stuff," Spieth said. "That was pretty neat to get that kind of experience."

Spieth will compete May 28-31 in the AJGA Thunderbird International Junior at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Ariz. Last year, he finished seventh in the event, five strokes behind Whitsett, who tied for third.

Then, with school out for the summer, Spieth will head back to the PGA Tour to play on a sponsor's exemption in the St. Jude Classic in Memphis, June 10-13.

The last question Spieth answered Sunday evening was about advice. Who gave him the best? "Probably my parents," he answered. "They just told me, 'You need to enjoy it, no matter how you play.' And that's what I did."

Steve Habel is one of Cybergolf's national correspondents, contributing news stories, features, equipment and book reviews and personality profiles from his base in Central Texas. He is also the managing editor for Texas CEO Magazine and works as a contributing editor for Horns Illustrated magazine, a publication focusing on University of Texas sports. He also writes a blog (www.shotoverthegreen.blogspot.com), which features news on golf and the Longhorns, and another (www.checkinginandplayingthrough.blogspot.com) on his many travels, which took him across the nation and to 105 different golf course in 2009. Habel is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America and the Texas Golf Writers Association.