PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Playing PGA Tour events for the first time at new venues, lacking the course knowledge that so many of his fellow competitors have, should be putting Jordan Spieth at a disadvantage.
Yeah, some disadvantage. At the Deutsche Bank Championship last year, getting his first look at TPC Boston, Spieth tied for fourth. At the Masters last month, he led by two in the final round before tying for second. Then there’s the eight other top-10s he had in 2013, and the runner-up in Hawaii at the start of 2014.
The 20-year-old Texan is at it again, positioning himself near the lead while making his debut in yet another tournament. This time it’s a big one, the Players Championship, which features the largest purse in professional golf, paying $1.8 million to the winner from a $10 million pot.
Against one of the best fields in golf, Spieth is making it look easy. He’s the only player without a bogey on his card through two rounds, handling the wind and the difficulty of the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass with a steady dose of fairways hit, greens made, and putts sunk.
Spieth isn’t even winning, but his Friday 66 was the low round of the day that brought him to 11 under par and within one shot of Martin Kaymer’s lead. Kaymer followed his record-tying 63 on Thursday with a 69 Friday morning. Spieth and Kaymer have distanced themselves somewhat, with Russell Henley (71) in third at 8 under, and a five-player posse another two shots back at 6 under.
Kaymer commanded all the attention in the first round, but Spieth stole the show in the second. Since playing his way onto the tour last year, he’s been making it a habit. Not with highlight-reel shots — although the holed bunker shot at the Masters comes to mind — but with a well-rounded game that doesn’t appear to have many weaknesses.
“He’s so grounded,’’ said Graeme McDowell, who was paired with Spieth the first two rounds. “He drives it good, not amazing. Hits his irons good, not amazing. Chips really well, not amazing. He’s not Phil Mickelson around the greens. Putts really well, he’s not Ben Crenshaw. But then you add it all up, and you go, ‘Wow, this kid is a really good player.’ I didn’t think Martin Kaymer would be remotely caught today.”
Spieth almost got there, with matching 33s and six birdies over his first 14 holes. He nearly aced the par-3 13th, then stuffed another iron inside 3 feet at the next hole for his final birdie. He missed a chance to tie Kaymer at 12 under on No. 16, by taking three putts to get down from the fringe, but didn’t seem alarmed at the miscue. In fact, Spieth sounded calm, confident, and matter-of-fact after his round.
“It was pretty stress-free. I feel great with my game right now going forward,” Spieth said. “But it’s just the halfway point, so if I can duplicate those rounds I think that would be a nice goal to have.”
No bogeys? No player has ever completed 72 holes at the Players without making at least one. The tournament record is one bogey, by Greg Norman during his 1994 win, when he set the Players scoring mark at 24 under.
“That’s a nice goal to have, but I don’t think it’s going to be possible to stay bogey-free for two more rounds, with the greens firming up,” Spieth said. “When bogeys come, it’s going to be how I rebound.”
He’s yet to face much adversity this week. How he responds — he’s been criticized, both by himself and others, at his on-course behavior when things turn south — could factor into his weekend chances as he tries to become the tournament’s youngest champion.
Kaymer is 6 for 6 in cuts made at the Players, but has never finished better than 15th. He led by four shots at one point on Friday, well before Spieth even began his round, and likes the way his game is coming together.
“The way I’ve played, I was very happy the last four or five weeks, so the next step is just putting yourself in contention, hopefully win,’’ Kaymer said. “If not, it’s OK. As long as you put yourself in contention for the next few weeks, especially now we’re coming up to the US Open, British Open. It would be nice to gain even more confidence, sneak in a win here and there.”
Both Kaymer and Spieth have one PGA Tour victory to their credit. Unless someone from behind makes a charge or both at the top take a few steps back, it might be a two-player race this weekend.
Considering the show they’ve put on the first two days, we could be in for a treat.