PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Saturday was moving day at the Junior Players Championship, and no one’s surge up the leaderboard was more noticeable than Jordan Spieth’s.
After sparking his round with three consecutive birdies on the back nine at TPC Sawgrass, Spieth finished at 3-under 69 on Saturday, leaving him in fourth place, two shots behind first-round leader Michael Johnson.
Spieth’s birdie run started with a chip-in from the greenside bunker at the difficult 14th, before he rolled in a 15-footer at 15 and nearly chipped in for eagle at the par-5 16th on the Stadium Course.
“It (the bunker shot on 14) was a decent lie, but it was going straight downhill,” Spieth said. “My caddie and I were talking about it and we figured there was no way to get it close without hitting the pin, so we just figured we’d go right at it. It landed right on the fringe, right where it needed to, and just happened to drop.”
Spieth’s round ended with a bogey at the 18th, after he blocked his tee shot into the trees and was forced to punch out.
“I knew I was going to do that,” Spieth said. “I could have driven out and placed where that tee shot was going to land. I had trouble with my ball flight all day, and I didn’t want to hit my first draw on 18 and go in the water, so I tried to play it out there to at least give myself a chance at par.”
Should Spieth make up the two shots in Sunday’s final round, it would be his first major junior victory since winning the 2009 U.S. Junior Amateur at Trump National.
“I’m definitely itching to get a win and boost my confidence going into the offseason,” he said. “It would be really nice to have this under my belt before taking some time off.”
To do that, Spieth is going to have to chase down Johnson, who backed up his first-round-leading 68 with an even-par 72 on Saturday.
After bogeying two of his first four holes, Johnson worked back to even par on the front nine and played a “boring” back side, where he made one birdie and one bogey to accompany his seven pars.
“I didn’t start off very well, but I chipped in on No. 9, so that sort of put a smile on my face,” Johnson said. “I wasn’t really focused on trying to be the leader. The last day is when you need to start doing that.”
Playing in the final pairing with Johnson will be Emiliano Grillo (72-69) and Billy Kennerly (70-71), who are both a shot back at 3 under. Grillo came out firing on Saturday, birdieing four of his first six holes before falling back with a double bogey at the par-3 eighth.
“On eight, I got a plug in the bunker and had one foot in the sand and my knee up on the edge of the bunker, so it was tough,” Grillo said. “I was just trying to make bogey and I made double.”
Making the biggest move up the leaderboard was Patrick Rodgers, a Stanford commit who shot a tournament-low 67 to rocket from T-42 to T-5. Rodgers shot 78 in the opening round, his worst score of the summer, after three-putting on Nos. 14 and 15 and four-putting on 16.
“I don’t really know what happened,” Rodgers said. “I knew if I could just work on my putting a bit in the afternoon, it was a real easy fix. I just needed to keep my head still and keep my chest down.
“I told my caddie, I’ve never felt better after a 78.”
Gavin Hall also made a move on Saturday, firing a 2-under 70 after making five birdies on the front side. Hall also sits T-5 at 1 over par.
Johnson, who was the last player into the field after Matthew Ceravolo withdrew earlier this week, is playing in his first AJGA Invitational. He already has one win on the junior circuit this year, at the AJGA’s Deutsche Bank Junior Shoot Out, an event at which he carried a six-shot lead into the final round and won by three.
Spieth, one of the most well-known players in junior golf, particularly after his T-16 finish at the PGA Tour’s Byron Nelson Championship, said he would have jumped at the opportunity to shoot 69 on Saturday, and he’s happy with his position in the tournament.
As for the two-stroke deficit?
“That changes with one shot on 17,” he said.