LA JOLLA, CALIFORNIA | To watch Jordan Spieth work his way around Torrey Pines this week at the Farmers Insurance Open, it’s like nothing has changed.
He’s still talking to shots, twirling his clubs, marching forward like a man who knows where he’s going.
Then you glance at the world ranking and he’s all the way down at 45th, one spot behind Jason Day, another former No. 1 chasing what’s been eroded by time, technique or too much noise rattling around upstairs.
This is another restart for Spieth, but the same was true a year ago when he showed up at the Sony Open in Hawaii, talking about how he was working his way back to being the player he was when he won three majors in what felt like the blink of an eye.
Spieth didn’t get there last year, though he did rediscover his brilliance on the greens, allowing him to make more of his 2019 than he might have.
Still, it’s been 2½ years since Spieth won the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale, breaking Matt Kuchar’s heart in the process with a finish that felt like a fireworks show.
Spieth’s gift is twofold: He putts like a wizard, seemingly willing the ball into the hole, and he’s had a knack for genuinely playing the game, making it as much or more about feel as mechanics.
Gradually, though, the wheels went off the road and Spieth has spent months trying to steer his game back to where it was. It’s getting there, Spieth said this week, but he didn’t sound like a man who had positively found the fix.
It didn’t go away in an instant and it won’t come back in one day either. Thursday was a solid start to the new calendar year, a 2-under-par 70 on the brutally unforgiving South Course at Torrey Pines. He followed up with another 70 on the North Course Friday.
“I feel kind of blank-slated here,” Spieth said. “I’m almost approaching it like I did in 2013 where I was ready to kind of bounce back to where I’ve been in the past.
“That doesn’t mean it’s going to happen right away but kind of build to that.”
As a matter of perspective, here’s how some of Spieth’s numbers have changed:
In 2015 when he won two majors, he ranked 15th in strokes gained off the tee and fourth in strokes gained tee to green. The next year, he ranked in the top 30 of both categories.
“Nothing crazy, no big changes or anything. It’s just simply finding ways to go back in time to where I’m swinging my swing instead of trying to do anything special.” – Jordan Spieth
Last season, Spieth ranked 176th in strokes gained off the tee and 157th in strokes gained tee to green. That’s where ranking second in putting saved him and allowed him to finish 44th in the FedEx Cup race.
In a handful of fall starts, Spieth’s ranking in those same categories went down, though it was an admittedly small sample size and he was using his three official starts as a trial-and-error experiment.
Spieth has been hard at work with swing coach Cameron McCormick, using 3D imaging and other technology to identify and remedy the inconsistency that has dogged him in tournament play. It’s mainly timing, Spieth said.
“Nothing crazy, no big changes or anything. It’s just simply finding ways to go back in time to where I’m swinging my swing instead of trying to do anything special.”
For some players, it’s all about the mechanics. They want to understand where every part of their body is or should be during the swing. They operate like a machine and feel most comfortable that way.
For others, Spieth being one of them, it’s more fluid, more art than science.
“I think I get into trouble if I get toward the technical side,” Spieth said.
Still, when players struggle or lose their confidence, they can become a prisoner to technique. They play golf swing rather than golf.
“It’s definitely a balance because there’s significant things I need to adjust mechanically,” Spieth said. “I’ve won golf tournaments thinking about my swing pretty hard every swing and I’ve won them where it was easy and I was playing shots.
“It doesn’t necessarily hinder but it’s a lot easier to be comfortable if you don’t have to think about the swing.”
In December, Spieth stayed home while the U.S. Presidents Cup team went to Australia and it stung him. He’s been at the center of several national teams and suddenly he wasn’t.
Spieth missed the anticipation. He missed being on text chains with his teammates. He missed the experience.
There is a Ryder Cup on the horizon and Spieth intends to be on the American team at Whistling Straits. By his own admission, he didn’t deserve to be on the Presidents Cup team.
“It really sucked, yeah. I hated not being there to help the team and be part of it and gain points for Team USA,” Spieth said. “That part was as tough as I expected but, at the same time, it’s fire not to miss another one.”
Jordan Spieth is searching for a path back to No. 1. Photo: David Cannon, Getty Images
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