Golf’s version of a time machine came to life Saturday afternoon in Phoenix in the space of about 20 minutes when Jordan Spieth became Jordan Spieth again.
If you missed it, Spieth holed a 36-foot birdie putt on the pandemic-muted par-3 16th hole then drained a 29-footer for his 10th birdie of the day on the 17th hole en route to a 61. Suddenly, it was 2015 again.
After making the bomb on 16, in front of a couple thousand fortunate fans rather than the usual raucous 15,000 or so, Spieth told caddie Michael Greller his only regret was the noise they missed.
It would have been a roar that reached beyond the moment because it felt like a precious something lost had been found.
Ultimately, Spieth sputtered on Sunday, shooting a flat 72 that left him tied for fourth, two behind winner Brooks Koepka. The bigger takeaway was that Spieth was relevant on the weekend again.
Not since the final round of the 2018 Open Championship at Carnoustie had Spieth had a share of the lead entering the final round of a tournament. Spieth’s game unraveled that Sunday and, though no one fully suspected it at the time, he was on the wrong side of the curve, his numbers and his confidence trending toward trouble.
A former No. 1, Spieth was still ranked third in the world when he finished third to Patrick Reed in the 2018 Masters. By the time he got to Phoenix last week, Spieth was No. 92 and dropping.
Some players can decline quietly, away from the spotlight. Francesco Molinari, who won the 2018 Open, has fallen outside the top 100 in part because he’s played infrequently during the pandemic and when he has played, at least until recently, the results have been lousy.
Spieth, because of his brilliance that produced three major championship victories in 27 months while flirting with a handful of others, is different. He is everybody’s All-American, Texas-born with a poet’s touch on the greens and a heart the size of a 10-gallon hat.
Beyond the gremlins that worked into Spieth’s swing, there is also the matter of confidence.
He plays golf for everyone to see, which means he keeps almost nothing inside, carrying on a conversation with himself as he goes, loud enough for television microphones to pick it up without seeming like they’re eavesdropping.
There’s a magnetism to Spieth, part of it due to his earnestness, another part due to his almost idiosyncratic swing. He’s not like everyone else and that’s said in the best sense of the term.
Seeing him in the mix again at Phoenix, shooting a 61 on Saturday that had the look and feel of a sky show was reassuring. After the round, he admitted he would be extremely nervous on Sunday and it showed with a bogey at the first hole. The putts that had fallen in for three days quit falling on Sunday.
What once came easily to him – finishing tournaments by throwing haymakers – had become a nervous excursion every time he stood over a tee shot. There are few worse things for a professional golfer – any golfer for that matter – than to stand over a tee shot and not be confident in where it was going.
Spieth has lived it.
He has stayed true to his convictions and his lifetime coach Cameron McCormick, though there have been times when it had to have felt like he was in a room without an exit door. When Spieth stopped in to see Butch Harmon late last year, the game’s best teacher reassured him that they were on the right path.
Spieth still drives it crooked – he hit just 35 percent of the fairways at TPC Scottsdale – but his gift has always been his ability to score. It’s the essence of the game and, at his best, it has been Spieth’s gold card.
Go back to the bogey he made on the 13th hole in the final round of the 2017 Open Championship at Royal Birkdale, playing a shot from beside the equipment trucks and manufacturing a score that kept him in the championship. Then he nearly aced the par-3 14th and won with an eagle that left Matt Kuchar wondering what just happened.
That was Spieth’s last tournament win.
That kind of gumption and ability to simply get it done have gone missing. Beyond the gremlins that worked into Spieth’s swing, there is also the matter of confidence. It doesn’t come with a lifetime guarantee. Spieth almost didn’t play in Phoenix, deciding at the last minute to stick with his commitment there.
“I just wanted to potentially go home and felt like I was really far from where I needed to be,” Spieth said Sunday. “And this golf course in general isn’t a great golf course for me, historically, so I thought I could then go into Pebble a little fresher. Boy, I’m glad I came.”
Trying to win, Spieth was imperfect. He didn’t give himself enough chances, missing makeable birdie putts and struggling to get some wedge shots close to the hole. It was a lesson in how not to win a tournament.
That was the short-term takeaway. The bigger picture, the one Spieth has insisted he’s never lost sight of, was another step along the road back.
“I believe in what I’m doing,” Spieth said. “A result like this just helps confirm what I was already feeling, and that just moves the needle the right direction.”
Top photo: Harry How, Getty Images
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