AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - Having spent a large chunk of last year as the world’s number one ranked golfer, it was no surprise to see Jordan Spieth’s name at the top of the leaderboard at any tournament where he chose to tee it up.
Yet the well-mannered, clean cut Texan who is getting set to defend his Masters title barely managed to crack Forbes’ Top 100 list of the highest paid athletes in 2015, checking in at number 85.
When Forbes releases its 2016 spread sheet, however, Spieth is likely to find a new number one attached to his name as golf’s top earner among the sporting world’s best paid pitchmen with a portfolio of endorsements that would make Tiger Woods envious.
Spieth banked $53 million in 2015 according to a report in Golf Digest, nearly $23 million coming from on-course earnings (including a $10 million bonus for winning the PGA Tour’s season-long FedExCup) while the remainder was generated from deals with blue riband sponsors like Coca-Cola and Rolex.
Such are the recognition and riches that flow from a season that produced five PGA Tour wins, including back-to-back major victories at the Masters and U.S. Open.
Spieth also swept golf’s major awards: PGA Player of the Year and PGA Tour Player of the Year, Vardon Trophy and Byron Nelson Award for leading the tour in scoring average, and the Arnold Palmer Award for leading the tour’s money list.
But success comes with a price and Spieth returns to Augusta National as his own golfing brand, an industry where those fans and sponsors who have invested in him look for even greater return on their investments.
The dividends continued to roll in as Spieth started the year with a bang by capturing the Hyundai Tournament of Champions but the results since then have not been as bullish.
His seventh PGA Tour win was followed by a tie for 21st at Pebble Beach then a missed cut at the Northern Trust Open.
He failed to crack the top 15 at the WGC Cadillac Championships and his title defense at the Valspar Championships ended in a tie for 18th.
A week before his Masters defense, Spieth had surrendered his number one ranking to Australian Jason Day, prompting discussion of a young man struggling to strike a balance between his work on the golf course and time spent elsewhere.
”It’s not like that just came up this year,“ dismissed Spieth. ”We were in the spotlight last year. I played golf before 2015, that I don’t think a lot of people realized.
”Last year was a fantastic year that sets you kind of into a non-golf audience and puts you in the spotlight there.
“So I don’t think it’s really changed this year because I think it’s been kind of building up the whole time.”
Even before last season, Spieth was already on the cusp of golfing stardom.
In his Masters debut in 2014, he shared the 54-hole lead and at one stage in the final round had built a two-stroke advantage before being overtaken by fellow American Bubba Watson on the back nine and finishing second.
The 22-year-old Spieth enjoys an undeniable comfort level among the majestic Georgia pines at Augusta but never before has he been burdened with the weight of expectation and sponsorship commitments that he will haul around with him this week.
To help lighten the load, Spieth has sought out advice from his Under Armour stablemates, including New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and the NBA’s most valuable player, Golden State Warriors’ Steph Curry.
“I can see what it’s like for other athletes, guys that are at the top of their sports, and you can kind of see how they deal with things,” explained Spieth.
”I think that I’ve been able to learn by personally speaking to different athletes that are at the top of their sport, and I think that that’s really helped.
“Around major championships, I just need to take that model into the rest of the PGA Tour golf now, which is just stay away from kind of all the outside influence.”
Like so many of the sporting greats, Spieth possesses the unique ability to perform best when the spotlight is at its brightest. Where many wilt, Spieth flourishes.
Along with his two major wins last year, he placed fourth at the British Open and was a runner-up at the PGA Championship as he came tantalizingly close to achieving the rarest of golfing feats - a calendar grand slam of the majors.
At a major, Spieth operates with a fearless, clinical efficiency but he not yet displayed the same laser focus when it comes to the day-to-day grind of the PGA Tour.
“So what do I make of not playing great but it not being a major? Fortunate that it’s not a major,” said Spieth.
”What I try and do after weeks like Riviera (venue for the Northern Trust Open) is try and just shrug it off as quickly as possible and convince ourselves it’s going to be the only missed the cut this year; and don’t let it happen again.
“It’s a different feeling on the grounds having won that tournament (Masters). It’s a special place for me, and I‘m really happy to be going back there as long as I‘m capable of playing golf.”
Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes