SCOTTSDALE — Jordan Spieth trying to find his way to the weekend, and find his game along the way, on a sun-splashed Friday morning at the Waste Management Phoenix Open was an exercise in adventure and emotion, if not frustration.
There was the good: An eagle from 20 feet on the par-5 15th. The bad: A three-putt bogey from nine feet on the par-3 16th. The ugly: A badly missed wedge from the middle of the fairway on the par-4 sixth that led to one of three bogeys.
It also proved to be an exercise in futility.
Sitting on the cut line and needing at worst a par as he played his final hole of the second round, the par-4 ninth, the 26-year-old three-time major winner and former World No. 1 drove into a fairway bunker and then hit his approach into a greenside bunker that left him short-sided. Needing to get up-and-down, Spieth, who three years ago holed a bunker shot in a playoff to win the Travelers Championship, decelerated and left the shot woefully short, the ball barely creeping onto the fringe. Then, almost as soon as his par putt left the putter he was walking after it, knowing he’d left that short, too.
“The last hole I felt like I needed to go at the pin to get to one under,” said Spieth, who shot 74-69 to miss the cut. “That's my only regret of the day, is that I didn't at least give myself a chance on the last hole. But I did a lot today to make it work.”
Work is probably the best word to describe the state of Spieth’s game these days: Work in progress, a lot of work, a workplace hazard. Any and all would apply.
It has been nearly three full years since Spieth’s last victory, at the 2017 Open Championship at Royal Birkdale. Once the top-ranked player in the world for 26 weeks, he came into this week having plummeted to 51st, his lowest ranking since 2013. Since claiming the claret jug, he has just one top-five finish, at the 2018 Masters.
Along the way, he’s tried everything from tinkering with his schedule, to toying with his sublime putting stroke, to focusing on his wayward drives. Earlier this week, he turned his attention to his grip, saying that he strengthened it by 5 degrees during a lengthy range session with his longtime coach Cameron McCormick on Tuesday because in the last couple of years it had become too weak.
The results once the shots counted for real, predictably, were spotty. By the time Spieth finished his second round, he ranked outside the top 50 in the field in every statistical category but one, strokes gained/off the tee.
“That's something that takes two, three months to nail down,” Speith said of the grip change, adding that he’s also trying to get his shaft flatter with a very closed clubface in his backswing. “It’s an unusual feeling for me, and it’s been difficult to trust, especially without having my grip in the perfect place.
“I miss a lot of left shots given the grip. My hands are pretty good and I’ll be able to figure it out in a couple of weeks, but I did it with the idea that we have a couple of months before the first major.”
And judging by his two days at TPC Scottsdale, along with a T-55 last week at Torrey Pines, there’s a lot more work to be done.
In Thursday’s opening round, Spieth’s game was leaky in all compartments. He ranked 99th in strokes gained/tee to green, 114th in strokes gained/putting and made just 45 feet of putts on the day. His only birdie came from near kick-in range, three feet.
Friday, he hit 16 of 18 greens, but the round was a inconsistent with three birdies, an eagle and three bogeys. Even making par proved frustrating. On the par-5 third, Spieth had what should have been an easy eight-footer for birdie. When he missed, he took an angry swipe with the putter and followed with some choice words to himself on his way to the next tee.
When Spieth’s ball found a fairway bunker on the last as he begged for it to avoid the sand, he barely had enough energy to smack his driver into the turf, letting out one last blow of frustration.
The missed cut means Spieth’s World Ranking will continue to slide. Currently, he’s on the outside looking in for next month’s WGC-Mexico Championship and could be as well when the WGC-Dell Match Play Championship rolls around in March, two events he has been eligible for every year since 2014.
Not that he cares these days. There are bigger problems.
“I don’t know where I’m at in the World Ranking,” he said. “Don’t care, don’t look at it. I’m just trying to step up and win a golf tournament and let everything else take care of itself, [but] you need to play all four rounds to win a tournament.”