KAPALUA, Hawaii — You see it on his shoulders, the expectations, even when things are going well but especially when they’re not, his head down against the “Let’s go Jordan!” and “C’mon, Golden Child!” calls. It’s an ill-fitting nickname, Golden Child. For one, Jordan Spieth is a man now, 30, married with children and beginning his 12th year as a professional. As for the golden part, all shiny objects, eventually, don’t shine as bright as they once did, dimmed by the patina that comes with the weathering of time.
Spieth did not win The Sentry. That honor belongs to Chris Kirk, who authored a final-round 65 to beat Spieth, Sahith Theegala and the PGA Tour’s best at the season-opening event at the Plantation Course. However, Maui is not so much an event in itself as a table-setter for the year ahead, and what we saw at Kapalua portends an interesting year for Spieth. Not because no one vacillates between world-beater and looking beat by the world like Spieth, for that is nothing new. Spieth is the one to watch in 2024 because he showed just enough of what he once was to inspire the belief of what he could do again.
“If you told me eight under at the beginning of the day, I would have thought Chris probably betters six under, but playing with the lead in the last group, maybe 8 was in a playoff, was kind of where my head was at,” Spieth said Sunday after a third-place finish. “There was just some phenomenal golf played everywhere.”
There’s no need to relitigate Spieth’s meteoric rise and fall and return from the wilderness. What has been mostly left unsaid, however, has been Spieth’s performance since he was declared as officially “back.” He’s been good since winning the 2021 Valero Texas Open: a runner-up at the Open later that summer, winning the RBC Heritage in 2022, a couple of top-five Masters finishes and three U.S. team appearances. Conversely, Spieth has not been great, by his standards or the standards of stardom, putting him in an odd purgatory where he’s treated like one of the best with a performance that doesn’t live up to the billing. He hasn’t stalled out … but he hasn’t been moving, either.
This week, however, looked like the Spieth of old. He admittedly came in with low expectations, not getting the chance to put in the offseason preparation he wanted. That outlook changed, though, earlier in the week, as Spieth was surprised with how well he was swinging and more importantly how good he felt. He overcame a double bogey on his third hole of the week to work himself into the penultimate group, and overcame a slow Sunday start thanks to five straight birdies starting at the seventh to be nipping at Kirk’s heels.
“I thought, walking off 11 green, ‘OK, if I get four by 18 I've got a chance at this,’” Spieth said.
For the sake of posterity, he only got three and bogeyed the par-4 16th after a brutal lie in a fairway bunker, ultimately finishing two back of Kirk with a 65. Yet it is not the leaderboard or scorecard that fuels an optimistic forecast. Only so much can be extrapolated from a tournament that regularly produces birdie records and 30-under winners. He also plays well here, with three career top-three finishes, including an eight-shot win in 2016.
But he’s not the same baby-faced assassin that took golf by storm, who was a couple strokes away from winning the Grand Slam and appeared to be on an all-time trajectory. Spieth alluded to the journey on Saturday when discussing his thoughts about his third-round playing partner, 21-year-old Akshay Bhatia, and though he was talking about Bhatia it was clear Spieth was also talking about himself.
“All you got to do is golf [at 21]. That's all you're doing,” Spieth said. “You have a life, but you get to do whatever you want all the time. That doesn't happen after 21.”
Left unsaid were the moments from 21 until now, both the good and the ones that leave scar tissue, that not just take away from golf but make you realize there’s more to life than golf. It makes for a healthier perspective, sure, yet maybe not the most conducive to success inside the ropes. “It's been a tough balance,” Spieth said. “I certainly didn't put anywhere near the time that I had wanted to prior to this event.”
Part of those constraints include Spieth’s time devoted as a recently-appointed tour Policy Board member as the tour attempts to close deals with private equity and Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. It’s not a ceremonial role, and it’s a responsibility Spieth takes serious for both the tour itself and his fellow players, and that responsibility requires untold time on the phone.
So why the optimism? Spieth’s putting, which has been the bane of his existence for the past two years, was an asset in Maui, ranking first on the greens in strokes gained. The swing looked in control, and a problematic wrist injury is finally getting better. "I've been on top of it. I've been going to physical therapy two, three, four times a week at home, depending upon the week, doing my exercises, and just trying to line things up to where I don't ever have any more issues," Spieth said. But from Thursday until Sunday evening, Spieth—who forever plays like he’s walking a tightrope backward and blindfolded—looked in control. On Sunday afternoon, Spieth was willing to allow that he knows he’s in control too … and where that might lead.
“I now have a little break and I'm really glad to feel like I got a little house money as I go into the heavier part of the season, and feel like I'm trending in the right direction,” Spieth said. “There's nothing but optimism about what the season can bring at this point, regardless of what I'm trying to do off the course.”
A good start, and a good mindset, doesn’t guarantee the Spieth of now will be the Spieth of old. He's of the stature where moral victories mean little. But this week does show the hope is not unfounded, and that is an expectation he’ll gladly shoulder.