AT&T National serves as launching pad for careers -- Gazette.Net


On Saturday night, somewhere in Bethesda, there was a 19-year-old sleeping on a lead in a PGA Tour event, a mere 18 holes away from a $1,170,000 payout. The teenager wasn’t dreaming because Jordan Spieth was simply living the dream.

Those 18 holes would ultimately prove neither miraculous nor disastrous for Spieth, who skipped his final three years of eligibility at the University of Texas to turn pro, which has paid in dividends most any of his peers could not even fathom. He would close the tournament out in sixth place at 6-under par, signing for a 69 in Sunday’s final round and a $234,000 paycheck, which pushed his season’s earnings past the $1 million threshold.

While PGA Tour veteran Bill Haas would eventually go on to win (-12), it’s the young up-and-comers like Spieth that the AT&T National seeks to attract.

“It was cool,” Spieth said after Sunday’s final round, which included an eagle on the first hole and a birdie on No. 3 to grant him a share for the lead at the time. “I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the experience. Although today started off well and ended a little bit on a downer as far as playing the back side one over, all in all, started the week, couldn’t ask for anything more. It was awesome.”

Tournament director Greg McLaughlin has been a longtime supporter of luring in some of the Tour’s most promising talents. In 2008, Anthony Kim, then considered one of the game’s top prospects, but has since derailed following Achilles’ tendon surgery, took home the trophy.

Last year’s tournament included the No. 1 amateur, Patrick Cantlay, who has since turned pro; Kelly Kraft, the U.S. Amateur champion that season; Spieth, then an amateur, and future Texas golfer Beau Hossler, who became the darling of the PGA Tour in 2012 with a strong performance at the Olympic Club’s U.S. Open.

“In keeping really with the tradition of the event, we have had a big commitment around amateurs,” McLaughlin said at last year’s media day press conference. “We have had past U.S. Amateur champions, NCAA champions as well.”

In Spieth, McLaughlin got everything he bargained for and more. With tournament host and the No. 1 player in the world, Tiger Woods, out with an injury, the crowds needed a new group to follow. The Australian pairing, comprised of Jason Day, Adam Scott and Marc Leishman, attracted the biggest crowd prior to the weekend and they were closely followed by Rickie Fowler, another supremely gifted 20-year-old, Jim Furyk and Angel Cabrera.

But not far behind from some of the PGA Tour’s biggest names was Spieth, who only entered the tournament by way of a sponsor’s exemption.

“I wouldn’t say I like it or dislike it,” Spieth said of the quickly expanding spotlight around him at such a young age. “It’s just — I guess it comes with it. I enjoy when the crowds come out. I enjoy — you always want to make a birdie and hear the roar. You want to chip in the bunker shot.

“But if something happened on 17 or 18 there, it would have been really cool with the atmosphere at the tournament. ... That’s what I enjoy is having all the people come out and really support you. You’re walking down fairways here and hear, ‘Go, Jordan. Go Spieth.’ It’s nice to have that support.”

And it’s a sure bet that those crowds, that support, will only expand from here. After all, he’s already turned the heads of more than a few pros, and part of that can be attributed to McLaughlin and the AT&T for being a showcase of sorts.

“He’s 19,” said Roberto Castro, who also had a chance for the title, but couldn’t keep up with Haas’ multiple-birdie performance. “He’s a tremendous player. Yeah, you can see why he’s done what he’s done. He’s got good game. He’s got a good attitude. He’ll be sitting in this chair for a lot of years to come. I would think.”

There will likely be much bigger chairs in front of vaster audiences for Spieth. The AT&T National — nearly every player interviewed raved about the quality of the tournament — but it’s not a major championship. But the Bethesda-based tournament has been one heck of a launching pad for careers such as Spieth’s and undoubtedly many more to come.

“Being able to come out here and compete, to call these guys, the best players in the world, kind of my peers is an honor and I just ... like competing,” Spieth said. “I like feeling the pressure, I like getting nervous. It’s a cool feeling for me. It’s a feeling that it’s so difficult to master.”

Well, his $234,000 paycheck probably eased a bit of that pressure. For a 19-year-old, that’s not half bad.