PGA Championship 2019: Don't look now, but Jordan Spieth might be "back"
Christian Petersen/PGA of America
FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — It was as good a shot as you can hit on the 17th. There was a little oomph behind it, the likely offshoot of back-to-back bogeys, but Bethpage's 17th—at 207 yards and surrounded by a sea of sand—is a hole that requires a little oomph. Jordan Spieth's ball gently cut through the breeze, carrying the guarding bunkers and stopped eight feet from the pin. The fans, of which there were many, roared; they did so again when Spieth converted the putt for birdie.
But when the ball was mid-air, there was another cry, albeit a lone wolf, to the left of the tee box. "It's about time, JORH-DAHN!" Eyes darted to see a spectator raising his glass. At Spieth, the ball, the day, we're not sure. He could have been over-served (unlikely, given it was mid-morning; then again, it is Long Island) or offering his version of encouragement.
Whatever spurred the shout, Spieth peered in his direction, and gave him a nod.
• • •
There was a testy moment during Spieth's press conference on Wednesday, or at least as testy as these proceedings go, 2014 Ryder Cup aside. A media personality asked Spieth about his recent shortcomings, and … well, take a peek for yourself:
Q. As you're in this bit of a slump, as you described it...
Q. Was, did you find that people—I'm not talking about outsiders, I'm talking about the people that you run into in the practice range and whatever, were almost walking around on eggshells around you; that people didn't really know what to say to you…
Q. Almost an awkwardness, and what's that like?
Spieth: No, I mean, I didn't like go away from the game for five years, I just happened to not win in the last year and a half or so.
There's a lot to unpack in that U-Haul. For the sake of brevity, let's focus on Spieth's assertion that his much-discussed slump has passed. The results say otherwise: Spieth's last top 20 came in September, he's 178th in strokes gained/tee-to-green and ranks 150th in the FedEx Cup. Perhaps Spieth was trying to self-induce a Jedi Mind Trick.
But here's the thing: Spieth's been adamant he's close. He's seen the stats and box scores; he's lived them. The play, in his mind, have been better than the end product. "If I can continue to make the amount of birdies I've been making and then just limit the mistakes a little bit, then should be right in it," Spieth on Wednesday.
Through two rounds at the 2019 PGA Championship, Spieth has proved a man of his word, a four-under 66 on Friday vaulting him into second as afternoon play begins.
"It feels like I'm playing the way I'm scoring, which is really nice," Spieth said. "I'm seeing tighter targets the better I'm hitting it; and therefore, I'm standing on tees willing to take on draws when there's trouble right and just knowing how to get the ball drawing and missing left, if anything."
The universal, and perhaps lazy, opinion was Spieth's week would be short-lived. Clearly this was a man not simpatico with his game—a game, even when it was good, that was not conducive to Bethpage's Yosemite-like confines. The Wanamaker would be won with precision and power, attributes that have been Spieth's Achilles' heel, ranking 202nd in strokes gained/off-the-tee.
In truth, this is just the venue for Spieth to get right. He's hit an inordinate amount of foul balls this season, yet it's hard to lose one at Bethpage, no hazards or trees to speak of, and the fescue is more decorative than threat. It's how Spieth can be on the scoreboard despite hitting just half his fairways and ranking in the lower half of the field in strokes gained/off-the-tee.
Yes, the brutal rough puts an emphasis on keeping it straight. Spieth's second-shot prowess negates this Bethpage potency, entering the week as one of the tour's better iron players from the rough (16th in proximity from the right rough, the side that tends to be his miss). Most relevant of all, Bethpage's greens, by major-championship standards, don't have much bite. Find the putting surface, and every putt has a chance of dropping. Though he's had a volatile relationship with his putter throughout his career, Spieth's been relatively sound in the short game in 2019. It's showed in Farmingdale, ranking second in strokes gained/putting. His six birdie putts are especially impressive given he hit just nine greens on the day.
"I think probably 90 percent back to when I was at my best, and the only difference maker is I think just speed control," Spieth said on his putting. "Speed control has still been just a little bit iffy, but I'm as good or better. I feel as good or better 15 feet and in.
"I've put a lot of thought and work into it, and the putting feels good."
When he did miss, his wedge bailed him out, successfully scrambling seven out of nine times, including a four-for-four performance from the bunker.
Before entertaining Grand Slam aspirations, there's the caveat that it's just two rounds. Should we say, the first two rounds, a significant addendum when talking about Spieth. He ranks 193rd in Saturday scoring, 208th on Sunday. That's, ahem, not going to get it done this weekend.
"This is different," Spieth contended. "It's different. It's not—I don't feel the same. I feel like the way I scored was actually the way that I played, and any time I was in a situation where it maybe looked like I was contending, it didn't feel like it this year so far.
"I just had some nine holes that really beat me up this year, and I feel like even if things get a little off, like yesterday's back nine had a chance to be one of those nines, and I was able to turn it around and finish the right way."
As good as he's been on the greens this week, the analytics say it's tough to replicate.
"I still need to hit more fairways," Spieth said. "Just like I said in here on Wednesday, I've got to be playing out of more fairways to be able to do—I made a lot of putts, and I can't necessarily rely on that."
There's also the chance Koepka makes all this moot by turning Bethpage into a pitch-n-putt.
Nevertheless. Spieth, lost in golf wilderness for what felt like forever, has put himself in position to do something only five players—named Nicklaus, Woods, Hogan, Player and Sarazen—have accomplished.
"If I'm able to put some good work in tomorrow, then I will be in contention on Sunday. And at that point, it will be just more of trying to win a golf tournament," Spieth said of the Grand Slam. "It won't matter to me what tournament it is. I'll be pleased to be in contention, knowing that the work I put in from being pretty far off has really come back nicely on a very difficult golf course.
"I imagine that will take pretty much most of my thought, but I mean, we'll see. I'm not sure what to expect."
No one does. And for the moment, it doesn't matter. What does: through 36 holes, he's looked like Jordan Spieth.
Like the spectator said on the 17th, it's about time.
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