PALM HARBOR — Judging by past performances and expert's opinions, Jordan Spieth could have a long and distinguished PGA Tour career.
Spieth, 20, has been a phenom since his junior golf days. But he will always look back at last year's Tampa Bay Championship at Innisbrook as when his professional career really got started.
"It's a special place for me," said Spieth, who returns for this year's tour event at Innisbrook, the Valspar Championship, which begins today on the Copperhead Course.
Spieth took a big gamble when he decided to turn pro in December 2012 midway through his sophomore season at Texas. Exempt into the second round of PGA Tour qualifying school, he failed to advance to the final round. That meant no status on either the 2013 Web.com or PGA tours. His only hope of getting into tournaments was through sponsor's exemptions.
Spieth finished tied for 22nd at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am in February. At the Puerto Rico Open in early March, he finished tied for second and won $308,000. That got him a spot the next week at the Tampa Bay Championship.
On the last three holes of the final round on the Copperhead Course, Spieth knew he needed at least one birdie to earn enough money to surpass earnings of $474,295 — the equivalent of 150th on the previous year's money list — to gain special membership status for the rest of the year.
"I was looking at the (leaderboard)," Spieth said. "The last three holes on Sunday here were three of the biggest holes I played all year."
Spieth parred the difficult par-4 16th hole. He then birdied the par-3 17th with a flop shot from just off the green. Then came an up-and-down from the front bunker for par on the 18th.
He finished tied for seventh at 5-under 279, good enough for a $148,893 paycheck and the special membership status.
"When I made the 6-footer on 18, I gave more fist pumps than I did at the (John) Deere (his first tournament win in July)," Spieth said.
He finished the season with one win, three second-place finishes and nine top-10 finishes. He earned $3.8 million.
"It's been cool to relive some of the shots that earned my status and kind of got the year kick-started," Spieth said of his return to Innisbrook. "It really took things to a different level, and I was able to play the PGA Tour instead of the Web.com or minitours."