ATLANTA – At East Lake Golf Club, the small stage set up for post-round interviews looks out over East Lake itself, and just on the far side of the lake runs the long 17th fairway.
Jordan Spieth sat awaiting the television interview, almost motionless as techs adjusted his lapel microphone. He'd just finished an exceptional eight-birdie Sunday round at the Tour Championship, the latest step in the most impressive journey in golf this year.
For a moment, he'd been only one stroke behind leader Henrik Stenson, close to closing a seven-stroke gap to start the day. But now, from where he sat, he could watch Stenson play up the 17th, including an exceptional approach that may well have kept the tournament from Spieth's grasp.
All the way, Spieth was calm, the kind of calm 20-year-olds aren't supposed to have. He answered the same three media questions from different broadcast outlets, never once betraying frustration or anxiety. He's 20, but he's ready for the spotlight.
In taking home the Tour Championship, the FedEx Cup and $11.4 million in prize money, Stenson was the big winner. But Spieth, who continued the most impressive debut season since Tiger Woods, was the story.
This time last year, Spieth was starting his sophomore year at the University of Texas. Granted, he wasn't your average Longhorn; he was the top-ranked amateur in the world, and he'd spent part of his summer posting the low amateur score at the U.S. Open.
He turned pro in December 2012, expecting to follow the proscribed route of a season, perhaps more, on the Web.com developmental tour looking to earn a PGA Tour berth. But he snagged several sponsor exemptions, played well enough in March and April to notch top-10 finishes in three tournaments, and in July became the youngest player (19) to win a PGA Tour event in 82 years.
The dominoes began falling, the path opened wide. He received invites to play in three majors and the Presidents Cup. Fred Couples bestowed a career-highlight honor on Spieth with a captain's pick to join the Presidents Cup team. He'd already earned more than $3 million coming into this weekend; the tie for second place at the Tour Championship and the seventh-place finish in the FedEx Cup will only add to that total.
Yeah, it's been a good few months, just don't expect Spieth to stop and let it sink in.
"I won't stop until the President's Cup," he said after his round on Sunday. "There's no need to let everything sink in. I've got to stay focused. … Start letting anything sink in about the year, it's maybe not as intense about the next tournament."
Still, the trappings of golf celebrity are starting to seep in. Spieth has played golf with former President George W. Bush, whom he calls the only person who's ever intimidated him. "I haven't met that many cool people, though," he said with a smile on Friday.
For cultural context, Spieth wasn't even a year old when Kurt Cobain died and O.J. Simpson jumped in that infamous Ford Bronco. But here he is, fully formed as a golfer and outplaying every one of the top five golfers in the world this week.
We harp on age a lot in sports, and usually because it makes careers so fleeting: baseball players are washed up at 35, basketball players generally done at 30, football players relegated to veteran status at 28. But golfers can play at the top of their skills into their 40s, and can play without embarrassing themselves on the Champions Tour until their 70s. In other words, Spieth could be competing for a green jacket at the 2048 Masters, and could be walking the Champions Tour in 2063. Let that sink in for a second … and try not to think too hard if you'll be around to see it.
Certainly, golf's rough is littered with the careers of phenoms who started hot and burned out fast. Ty Tryon, Sergio Garcia, Anthony Kim – they all appeared to have the golf world in their hands at a young age, and while they've won tournaments between them, none has truly capitalized on the immense promise they showed in their earliest days.
But then again, a couple guys by the name of Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods have done well enough after flashing some skill as youngsters. More recently, Adam Scott has shaken off once and for all any kind of failed-phenom angle, winning the Masters and establishing himself, at 33, as one of the best players in the world.
So it's all out there for Spieth, glory or oblivion. Maybe he'll become one of the all-time greats, playing his way into the World Golf Hall of Fame like Phil Mickelson did with plenty of gas still in the tank. Maybe he'll settle into an undistinguished but highly lucrative career as a PGA Tour journeyman. For now, everything that's happened in 2013 is an unexpected bonus.
"The beginning of the year, my goal … it was just to get my 2014 PGA Tour card," he said. "I thought that it would come through the Web.com Tour this year and the Web.com Playoffs. … I just had to readjust goals a couple different times this year, and definitely exceeded any expectations I could have imagined starting the year."
Redefining goals upward isn't a bad way to spend a year. As for the PGA Tour? He's made it to the mountaintop. More importantly, he belongs.