The path back to excellence in professional golf is long and irregular, even for the best players. To fall from rarefied heights, no matter the reason, is like recovering from a crash in a bike race—getting back on the road is only the start of the process; the real work comes in catching the other riders who never stopped pedaling. This shouldn’t necessarily be true in golf, but it is, and everyone from Tiger Woods to Rory McIlroy to Jason Day has learned the lesson in recent years, sometimes more than once.
Jordan Spieth is the latest mega-star to have fallen on hard times, and he’s locked in the fight of his professional life to claw his way back to former glory. He missed the Tour Championship for the first time in his still young career last season, but the low point in what is at least a two-year odyssey probably came earlier this season, when he arrived at Augusta without having finished better than T-24 in any 2018-’19 event. His trajectory has improved since then, albeit slowly, and in the last month a couple things have become clear:
1: He can now find his best game with some regularity.
2: His best game still puts him above almost everyone else in the world.
So what’s left to find, before he can win again? If you ask Spieth, it’s consistency, and it’s true that he’s had rocky stretches in otherwise strong tournaments. But looking at the numbers, the inconsistency seems to strike overwhelmingly on weekends, and especially when he’s in contention. He was just off the lead at the Northern Trust after the opening two rounds, but a Saturday 74 sent him plummeting down the leader board, and even a Sunday 67 couldn’t elevate him higher than T-6. (Which, it should be noted, is still his second-best finish all season and gives him a chance to qualify for East Lake with a strong showing at this week’s BMW Championship.)
This was not an isolated event, and some were already wondering before he finished his Friday round whether another Saturday dive was coming:
“Spieth shot 77 on Sunday at Portrush and 76 on Sunday at Pebble Beach. There was the 74-75 weekend at Hilton Head. Ditto at the AT&T Pebble Pro-Am. And of course the Sunday 81 at the Genesis Open, which took him from T-4 to T-51.”
Sean Martin of the PGA Tour cut to the chase in contrasting Spieth's Thursday/Friday scoring average with his play on the weekend:
Reporters posed the question to Spieth directly on Friday night, but he wanted to bring the topic back to “consistency.”
Q. Do you need a good round tomorrow to erase your scar tissue?
JORDAN SPIETH: I don’t think so. Again, I’m just going for consistency.
But “consistency” here has to be read as a misnomer at best, and wishful thinking at worst. Inconsistency is a phenomenon that strikes randomly. When bad play happens with predictable regularity in specific situations, that’s not inconsistency … it’s the opposite. The truth is, Spieth’s play on weekends has been consistent—just not in the way he wants.
All of which is to say that Spieth has one last obstacle keeping him from re-joining the sport’s elite, and that’s his performance under pressure.
At the Northern Trust, he was asked twice about playing partner Matthew Wolff, and Spieth said something similar both times. Here’s Thursday:
“I love how aggressively he plays. It’s cool. It’s kind of like I definitely knew I used to play a little bit more that way and I kind of need to get back into that.”
“He swings his own swing, which I can certainly look at and say, maybe I don’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t have to be textbook. Just be yourself. I can learn stuff from him. When you look back, it’s more similar to me when I was 20 than I am now, and I can actually learn how to get back to that style of golf, which is a better way to play the game.”
It’s interesting to note that Spieth's observation of Wolff’s play came down to a perceived lack of fear, and that when he looks at his own game, fear is part of what he sees. For players like Spieth and McIlroy, who have thoughtful natures that can veer into anxious play, this might be inevitable—they think their way into trouble, only to realize that at a certain point the only way out is to stop thinking and rediscover a younger, more instinctive mindset.
Whether it’s possible or even desirable to return to that state—I remember a version of Jordan Spieth in 2014 who became discouraged and even sullen in the final rounds of big events like the Players Championship and the Masters—it’s probably the right mental direction. Golf is a sport in which experience tends to accumulate, and that includes bad experience. Spieth, at age 26, is in a pressure rut right now, and it’s going to take a mental adjustment to find his way out. That adjustment, he realizes, can’t be toward caution and restraint. (Good on Wolff for showing him the way, but it’s also a lesson Spieth could have learned at any point in the last two years from Brooks Koepka).
According to Spieth’s own account, his physical troubles started with putting alignment, bled into his swing, and even affected his setup. His putting recovered beautifully, and he’s been one of the best on the PGA Tour all year, but his tee-to-green game suffered mightily. Those flaws have been healed, at least enough to render him capable of going very, very low. But until he’s ready to thrive under pressure again, his long comeback will be incomplete.