HONOLULU — “What’s wrong with Jordan Spieth?” is a question that has been posed plenty of times before. We’ve simply inserted a new name into the query.
There were two significant interludes of “What’s wrong with Jack Nicklaus?” in the career of golf’s greatest major championship player. And before that, the golfing cognoscenti were wondering, “What’s wrong with Arnold Palmer?” And then there was, “What’s wrong with Tom Watson or Greg Norman … or Tiger Woods?”
No one is immune from the game’s ebbs and flows, though sometimes it’s difficult to figure where one starts and the other stops. Or as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote, “The way upward and the way downward is one and the same.” And to think, Heraclitus, born in 535 BC, who came to be known as “the weeping philosopher” because of his melancholy disposition, never picked up a golf club.
In the case of Spieth, his career seemed to flow naturally from the moment he won the 2013 John Deere Classic to become, at 19, the fourth youngest winner in PGA Tour history. From there he assembled a player-of-the-year season, winning the first two majors of 2015 and five times overall to rocket to World No. 1. And though he collapsed at the 2016 Masters, it appeared that he put that experience to use in his gut-check victory in the 2017 Open Championship at Royal Birkdale.
But Spieth, 25, is winless since that miraculous self-reviving effort to claim the claret jug. The flow has, well, ebbed. Not only did he not win last year, but he failed to reach the Tour Championship, missing by one spot the event reserved for the top 30 players in the season-long FedEx Cup standings. He slipped to No. 17 in the world.
What’s wrong with Jordan Spieth? Not much. But just enough to send him asking the same exact question that he knows a lot of others are asking.
“The thing for us,” Spieth began, “is not to get caught up in today’s news. It’s easy to sometimes when you’re not used to it. I haven’t seen, read or heard anything on it. I learned that lesson already because I know what’s wrong with Jordan Spieth, and I know what’s right with Jordan Spieth.
“I know how to get where I want to go with my golf game and have fun doing it. … I don’t really know what anyone has said other than something is wrong. I know my results aren’t the same, and I know I’m not playing as well. Clearly, I already know that.”
What hadn’t been clear is what he should do about it. A slump of some nature isn’t just about doing things poorly; it’s also about the path you choose to resume doing things well. As he prepares for the Sony Open in Hawaii, Spieth is unsure of his prospects for winning again in the near term but is certain he is back on track after searching in vain last year.
Having failed to qualify for the Sentry Tournament of Champions in Maui, another huge disappointment, Spieth eyed the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines for his 2019 debut. But after confidence-building practice sessions after Christmas, he couldn’t subdue the urge to start earlier. He has no expectations, except “to knock off some rust and gather some information about where I’m at.”
And just where is he now?
“Honestly not sure,” said the native Texan, who will play his first event since he married his high-school sweetheart, Annie Verret, in November. “Like I have lesser amount of certainty of that than I've had in a while. It doesn’t bother me right now. I don’t feel anxious, like I have to do anything. I feel pretty patient with what’s coming because I know I’m working on the right things. Took me a while to figure out what that was. Now I know I’m working on the right things in the game to get back on track and get to where I’m as consistent as I’ve been before.”
But it wasn’t just that Spieth was consistent. He was, at times, spectacular, of which he even showed glimpses last year when he caused the tall pines at Augusta National to quake from the cheers for his brilliant closing 64. That 2015 campaign, when he was the youngest since Bobby Jones to win consecutive majors, set him up for difficult encores.
“It was such an unbelievable year,” said Steve Stricker, who partnered with the youngster in the 2013 Presidents Cup at Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio, after Fred Couples made Spieth a wildcard pick. “The unfortunate thing is he had that so early in his career, and we hold him to that high standard. I think that is a little bit unfair.”
“Form comes and goes. It's a long career,” said former World No. 1 Adam Scott of Australia. “You know, everyone's and your own expectations can be very high. When you look at a guy playing well you wonder how he'll ever play poorly again. The biggest thing is to not get in your own way so much. I was guilty of that over the past 18 months because frustration gets in your way.
“If you put some perspective on it, ranking 50th in the world, it’s not completely terrible. I still think being the 50th-ranked player I can win a tournament any week with my experience and the potential of my game. I just need to sort it out, get myself in a good mindset going on the course. I think that’s as important as some of the technical stuff. Just got to give yourself a break sometimes.”
Adding further perspective, Scott suggested that a slight drop in performance can cause a disproportionate falloff in results simply because the competition is too good to not take advantage. A run of Tiger-like dominance doesn’t seem possible.
“Tiger has set the mark to a point that is unrealistic almost for anybody else,” said Scott, the 2013 Masters champion. “And with where the game is right now, I just don't see the separation in players the way Tiger separated himself from everyone for 10 years.”
Spieth has a terrific all-around game, but nothing spectacular save for one area. He could separate himself from the competition with his putting. He was uncanny from any distance, particularly long range. In 2015, he ranked ninth in strokes gained/putting; in other words, his success didn’t derive solely from his work on the greens, but it sure was integral to it.
Last year in the same category he ranked 123rd, a drop of nearly 100 spots from 39th in 2017 and a precipitous fall from ranking second in 2016. His ability to clean up close to the hole was especially shaky as he fell from seventh to 181st on three-footers.
“I’ve had the reputation of being the best putter in the world, and I want to get back to that,” said Spieth, well aware of the shortcoming. “I just have to clear up the visuals and go do it.”
Which means clearing his head, shaking off all of the bad feelings from a year in which he had a chance to win two majors but in the end got nothing out of it, not even a Ryder Cup victory. But he knew a season like 2018 was possible. Smart young man. He does understand the game.
“I think whether you’re tricking yourself or—and that's part of the gig—I was certainly frustrated with last season results-wise compared to previous seasons,” he began. “It was also something I kind of embraced as an inevitable at some point in the career.”
But now he understands that there was much he didn’t understand.
“I almost took ignorance as bliss in a lot of parts of my game. I did things well, but I didn't know why. I just did them. Then they got off, and so I had to figure out why I did them well and how to train it back. Ultimately that should help me going forward … if I get off, not be as off or be able to click it back on quicker to stay as consistent as possible. When I started to kind of embrace the fact that it was bound to happen at some point in the career and maybe this is it, then make that be the only time I get that far off and grind it back. Then you have your checkpoints that can't get off again.
“I think we’ve established them,” Spieth added before a note of caution. “Again, just not quite back yet. It will require some reps. I want to trust. Out here just trying to trust what I'm working on and not bail on swing feels and go to what's easy. Instead, power through it and wait for it to come around.”
What would a successful 2019 look like to a player who already has 11 career wins without any in the last 17 months? The answer is obvious but also layered. He mentions that he had a chance on Sunday to win the Masters and the Open Championship, the latter where he failed to make a birdie in the final round after holding a share of the 54-hole lead.
“Ideally, you’d have that chance every year,” he noted. “[But] it’s not fun to see other people winning.”
Indeed, chances can only heighten frustration. Somewhere, somehow, a player has to take advantage, convert when getting close. Ask Rory McIlroy, who let another winning opportunity—seven and counting in the last year—slip by at last week’s Sentry Tournament of Champions, how fulfilling chances are in and of themselves.
“I would love to get back in the winner’s circle. Been itching,” Spieth admitted. “I know in golf you can play the best and still not win that week, and you can also be a little off and somehow win. I've been on both sides of that. Ultimately, just comes down to being as consistent with my game as I can to continue to work my way into the top 10 by Sunday, and then it'll start to fall. So, it's not trying to win a tournament. It's more an overall consistency of the game.
“When you don’t know what’s off, that’s an uneasy feeling. But when you know and you’re working the right way, then I don’t feel the pressure to make it happen right away.”
So, what’s wrong with Jordan Spieth? Perhaps only the thought that we’ve ever had to ask the question in the first place.