AUGUSTA, Ga. — Jordan Spieth came searching for a cure. Surely the answer was here, his home away from home. But as much as Spieth loves the Masters—and it loves him—Augusta National is no analgesic.
Spieth, whose 10-month funk has been one of the sport's chief wonders and worries, remained in his slump Thursday afternoon, stumbling to a three-over 75.
On the surface, it's a performance that shouldn't be of great surprise. History has shown momentum, of some variety, is demanded at this tournament. Spieth entered Georgia with nothing in that regard, his last top-25 finish coming in September. Unlike last year, where the 25-year-old's putting was the only part of his game not firing, nearly every aspect now seems out of sync. He's outside the top 200 in strokes gained/off-the-tee, and not much better (175th) in greens in regulation. Short game, also a mess. By almost every metric, the profile of a player battling for a tour card, not a major championship.
But there are stats and there are sentiments, and what Spieth lacks in the former he more than compensates in the latter. Throughout his struggles, Spieth has preached patience. He's maintained that he's close, and more importantly, exuded confidence. It's clear, he stated, he's in the middle of a process. Though it takes time, the process was working.
"I feel like my recent results aren't a tell of where my game is actually at," Spieth said on Tuesday, "and I feel I've made a lot of strides in the last couple days in the tee‑to‑green game, really just off the tee, my long game, which has been the only separation from being able to win golf tournaments over the last month or so."
Moreover, we—fans, media, fellow players and gamblers—believed it. This course is Spieth's playground, four top-three finishes (and a win) in five tries. Blindfold him, spin him around twice and give him a set of left-handed clubs and the man could still break 70.
Or at least that was the thought. Turns out tournaments are not decided by beliefs. You certainly don't roll into Augusta National amidst a process. You better be, need to be, polished, fine-tuned. Anything else is punished.
Spieth came to that epiphany early on Thursday. First hole to be exact. He faced a two-footer for par. A par on the first is one of the biggest exhales in golf. Feels like you stole one on the field. But two feet has looked like 20 to Spieth as of late, ranking 181st in shorties last year and 161st on anything inside 10 feet this season. That showed on Spieth's attempted save, as the putt lipped out something fierce. One over through one.
While he bounced back with a birdie on No. 2, those efforts were erased at No. 3. Spieth's approach came up short of the green. So did his five-footer for par.
Spieth bounced back on two of Augusta's tougher holes at Nos. 4 and 5. But it all went sideways once more at the sixth. His approach at the 180-yard par 3 missed to the right, a precarious spot given Thursday's hole location. From there, throw out par; pitch to the fat part of the green and take your medicine.
Only Spieth didn't, and Augusta responded in kind. His shot went short and sideways, falling off the front slope of the green. Spieth failed to get up-and-down from there for double. If that wasn't humbling enough, Spieth's chip at the ninth climbed halfway up the green's incline before deciding to come back down to his feet. For those scoring at home, that's a four-over 40.
The back wasn't much better. He stopped making bogeys, and even carded a birdie on the 16th. Yet he settled for pars on the 13th and 15th, the two easiest holes on the course. It's something you simply cannot do if you want to contend at Augusta.
The final damage could have been worse, although nine shots behind co-leaders Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka is about as worse as it gets if you're Spieth. Forget a second green jacket; at T-63, it will be a hustle to make it to Saturday.
In fairness, Spieth wasn't the only marquee name to go south. World No. 1 Justin Rose also shot 75, as did Hideki Matsuyama. Paul Casey a big 81. Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy weren't much better at one over.
But those names don't have a place in the champions' locker room, and even McIlroy doesn't shoulder the expectations Spieth has at the Masters.
Spieth will, eventually, be back on the grid. He's too talented, too cerebral, too steadfast to be permanently stuck.
When that revival comes is anyone's guess. It just won't be here, not this week at least. No matter how much Spieth, or the game, want it to be so.