JERSEY CITY, NJ. It’s hard to describe Jordan Spieth’s dogged effort to return to the winner circle for the first time since winning the 2017 Open Championship as a critical comeback for his career. But let’s pause to remember what Spieth accomplished so quickly after turning professional in 2012.
Spieth won his first PGA Tour event in 2013. In 2014 he nearly won The Masters and finished as runner-up at the age of 20. In 2015 Jordan came as close as any golfer in recent memory in nearly winning the calendar Grand Slam — with wins at Augusta and the US Open, finishing one shot away from joining the playoff at The Open at St. Andrews and earning the runner-up position to winner Jason Day at the PGA Championship.
The last time Jordan was in the winner circle came at the ’17 Open Championship at Royal Birkdale where he dispatched Matt Kuchar with an electric finish going birdie, eagle, birdie, birdie from the 14th through the 17th holes — this coming after nearly throwing away the championship with a wayward tee shot at the 13th that finished on the adjoining practice range area but remarkably Spieth was able to escape with just a bogey.
It’s hard to imagine a player who accepted the famed Claret Jug for such an epic final round performance would be winless since then.
Spieth is working his way through a prolonged slump and much of it is tied to a long game – notably the driver — that has been consistently uncooperative. Even the 26-year-old’s famed putting prowess has seen moments where the simplest of short putts have been badly missed.
One would not surmise such issues after watching his sterling play through the first two rounds of The Northern Trust at Liberty National Golf Club.
Spieth played brilliantly during Friday’s second round with an eight-under-par 64 propelling him to a two-round total of 131 and finding himself just one shot behind leader Dustin Johnson. His 131 total matched his best opening two round total from a week prior at the Wyndham Championship this season. The head-scratching issue at Wyndham was a deflating 3rd round 77 causing Spieth to miss the final 18-holes. Jordan has shown flashes of his past brilliance in the first 36 holes at two other tournaments but the issue is now about finishing off events with a return to the “W” column.
Let no forget this is a golfer who spent 26 weeks ranked as the best player in the world. Spieth’s position now is ranked 38th and he’ll need to play well for the rest of the FedEx Cup Playoffs given his starting position in the 69th slot with only the top 30 players advancing to The Tour Championship at East Lake in Atlanta.
Even with his past hiccups when getting into contention, the 11-time winner on the PGA Tour is prepared to be especially patient with two rounds to go.
“Yeah, I mean the important thing for me is not to, not to get ahead of myself. It’s about limiting the mistakes,” said Spieth during his post round press conference. For the first 36 holes Spieth has shown a quality performance. “You know, one bogey over 36 holes is somewhat unrealistic week-to-week. But if I can hold it close to that for the next 36, again, that firepower is still there. And it would certainly shoot my confidence up.”
The issue for Spieth is taking on Johnson who seems to be returning to form this week. The two have had moments in this event when in 2017 Dustin bested Jordan in a playoff at Glen Oaks. Spieth was asked if he needs a good round Saturday to erase his scar tissue. His reply was telling.
“I don’t think so. Again, I’m just going for consistency, I don’t need anything. Again if I’m putting the ball in the right position off the tee, I feel really confident about the rest of the game, ” said Spieth. That statement will clearly be tested when playing alongside Johnson who has been nothing but outstanding in the tournament with the best performance in strokes gained from the tee.
Spieth’s success from just a few years ago came from being able to get to the correct positions off the tee and unleashing a putting stroke that was simply devastating for its consistency to hole critical putts — even from lengthy distances. Tying things together will be a central aspect for him.
“I’m in position, and there’s going to be times where I’m out of position over the weekend. It’s about limiting the mistakes,” said Spieth.
During the event’s first two round Spieth was paired with Matt Wolffe — a 20-year old fresh face eager to join the upper echelon of golf’s top players. Spieth recognized that reality but is ever eager to walk his own path.
“He swings his own swing, which I can certainly look at and say, maybe, I don’t have to be perfect. You know there is no — it doesn’t have to be textbook. Just be yourself. I can learn stuff from him.”
Much hangs in the balance for Spieth at Liberty National. Until he reaches the winner’s circle the painstaking journey will not be complete – and the same “what’s wrong with Spieth” questions will linger. The sensational successes Jordan created for himself with his stellar play early on in his career is now the anchor that’s wrapped around his neck. Is there a second act for Spieth? Was Jordan really that good or was it truly an aberration that he will never duplicate in his career?
Saturday’s 3rd round with Johnson is an epic test. It will push him to demonstrate the wherewithal to be patient, but more importantly, show the elite players in the game that Spieth is no longer going to take a back seat to anyone. All eyes will most certainly be watching with interest.