SPRINGFIELD, N.J. – Jordan Spieth said, “I’m hitting the ball fantastic.”
Then he said, “I’m striking the ball beautifully.”
And, “My putting was great.”
First seen in the 8 a.m. dark of a raining-sideways morning dressed in a black rain suit – he looked like a Navy SEAL about to save the world – Spieth five hours later walked into the afternoon sunlight and said what he had made obvious all day. In every way, he is ready again for the Sunday heat of a major.
As I type these words, Spieth enters Saturday’s third round of the 98th PGA Championship some number of shots behind several people, one named Emiliano Grillo. Emiliano Grillo! He is an Argentinian, 23 years old, who seems to have trimmed his blond hair once, long ago. He bears a resemblance to the American actor, Sean Penn, only in Penn’s wild child days after a hard night. I type those words now in hopes of never typing them again. You can have Jimmy Walker and Henrik Stenson and Patrick Reed. For sure, you can have Emiliano Grillo. Give me Jordan Spieth.
Yes, ‘tis rude to make light of these worthies, even Emiliano Grillo, a teenage prodigy who at 21 won the Argentine Open and this year won the first tournament he played as a member of the PGA Tour, the Frys.com Open, with a $1.08 million payday. It may turn out that he is the second coming of Roberto de Vicenzo, Argentina’s patron saint of golf.
But, really. We already know what we have in Jordan Spieth. He’s America. He’s Texas. He’s the last, best hope that we will have another Ben Hogan or Byron Nelson. Last year, 22 years old, Spieth won the Masters and the U.S. Open back to back, then practically won the British, a shot out of a playoff, and the PGA as well, second there, three shots back. All of it was sensational, even joyful, a delightful, smiling, big-hearted thrill ride of the kind that Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus once gave us.
Then, this April at Augusta, on Sunday, going in with a five-shot lead, Spieth lost the Masters with two chunks into the creek at the 12th. His was not the only heart broken.
So give me Jordan Spieth here. Give me Spieth coming back when there was reason enough only three months ago to wonder if anyone could come back from that, ever. Give me Spieth winning the PGA at Baltusrol Golf Club. Only two events after the Masters, he did win the PGA Tour’s Dean & DeLuca event. But winning something called the Dean & DeLuca is not winning a major, and Spieth was lost among the mediocrities in this summer’s Opens (T-37 at Oakmont, T-30 at Troon).
It’s nice, then, to see him smiling in a major’s sunlight. With a three-under-par 67 Friday following a first-round 70, he needs another such round Saturday to be a player in the Sunday heat. There’s small reason to doubt he can create such a round; Friday’s work suggests it’s more than likely. Not only did he birdie two of his final three holes Thursday, he birdied five of his first nine Friday – seven birdies in 12 holes to move to four under par and within a shot of the then-current leader, Henrik Stenson.
He created the 67 Friday with iron play so good that twice from fairway bunkers he dropped second shots to kick-in distance for birdies. From the tee early, he was wild to both sides. But from the rough then, and from the fairways on his second nine, he hit 15 of 18 greens in regulation. Whether ”fantastic” or done “beautifully,” Spieth’s ball-striking gave him more birdie chances than he cashed in.
“I just can’t get a putt to go in outside 10 feet,” he said. For reasons he couldn’t explain, other than to say Baltusrol’s greens were immaculate and skating-rink smooth, Spieth had trouble finding both the line and speed, “a wicked two feet faster on the Stimpmeter, even after all that rain.” From 10 to 20 feet, he said he had so many easy putts that had he performed “up to my putting standards, I would be five, six, seven strokes better right now. . . . Inside of 10, I made quite a few good birdie putts today to get me in contention.”
So sweet, the sound of those words in contention.
Perhaps as signal of his readiness to be in heat Sunday, Spieth’s voice, usually kind and gentle, for a moment Friday took on a fighter’s edge. A reporter’s question seemed to suggest the 67 was, if not a surprise, an unexpected development that must have pleased Spieth.
“I mean,” Spieth said, a smile not quite there, “I got third in the World Golf Championship a couple tournaments ago.” That, he did. Then came the Open at Troon, no fun there, and here he is at Baltusrol insisting, “I feel good. Again, I’ve been striking the ball well.” At Troon, because the greens were slow, Spieth lost the feathery putting touch that is his gift: “It just got a little off at the Open. I just didn’t hit them hard enough.” Then, at Baltusrol, the adjustment was difficult: “Once that comes and my putting gets back, then I’m firing on all cylinders.”