FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – Is it overthinking? Or is it about ownership? Or is it a little bit of both?
The questions about Jordan Spieth and his missing-in-action performance during the past 22 months are part of the discussion at the 101st PGA Championship, which begins today at Bethpage State Park’s Black Course (tee times).
What is wrong? Will he be a factor? Can he win again?
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Spieth, who will attempt to win the career Grand Slam this week, is a three-time major champion. However, he hasn’t won one of golf’s top four prizes since the 2017 British Open at Royal Birkdale. That seems to be so long ago for the player who many observers thought might be the next Tiger Woods.
Since that 11th PGA Tour victory 22 months ago, Spieth, 25, has gone 0 for 41 on the Tour. He hasn’t had a top-10 finish since the 2018 British Open, which was 19 starts ago. He pegged the recent struggles to a lazy swing setup and how he had started to route his swing up instead of around his body.
“I'm trying to get it right back to where it was in 2017,” said Spieth, noting a year during which he won three times, ranked first in scoring and second in strokes gained tee to green on Tour. “We have all the data points to do it. It's just a difficult move for me right now, and it just takes a little bit of time to work it back and get the timing right, most importantly. I can kind of do what I'm trying to do, but to consistently time it is just going to take a little bit of time.”
It seems like so much more than that.
Spieth rated among the game’s top putters when he was winning tournaments. When the putts stopped dropping, the victories and top finishes faded. It’s difficult to make a living in professional golf on converting 20-footers.
Spieth realized the frustration last week at his hometown event, the AT&T Byron Nelson in Dallas, of knowing what to do and yet not doing it.
“Knowing what I need to do and doing that can be very challenging,” said Spieth, who tied for 29th, “and taking so much time, it's unusual.”
Steve Stricker fought back from a massive slump in the middle of his career. The difference is that Stricker, now 52 and a 12-time winner on the PGA Tour, had no major victories to reference. The next American Ryder Cup captain understands the issues that Spieth faces.
“I think it was the realization that, this is what I've got to do,” Stricker said. “I'm not capable of getting any other job in life, probably, so I'm like, I'm a golfer. That's what I've done my entire life, so let's suck it up a little bit. Let's go to work; work harder.”
Spieth has worked incredibly hard since he won at Royal Birkdale, but the dividends have been few and far between.
When asked to recall the best thing that has happened to him on a golf course this year, Spieth mentioned hole-out wedges at Torrey Pines and TPC San Antonio. He ultimately finished T-35 at the Farmers Insurance Open at T-30 at the Valero Texas Open.
Pretty modest stuff for a multi-major winner.
For Stricker, the turnaround came down to swing ownership, something that Spieth has talked about in the past.
Jack Nicklaus has discussed the need for players to take ownership of their swings, as well. Nicklaus, an 18-time major champion, would see only instructor Jack Grout, Nicklaus’ instructor since childhood, once or twice a year, and the sessions would be brief. Nicklaus understood the value of knowing his swing and being able to make adjustments during tournaments.
Spieth still seems to be searching.
“I thought I made progress,” Spieth said. “I was trying something Sunday [at the Nelson] that was kind of a test, and it was kind of a bad decision. That's what I'm talking about. I kind of went away from what I was doing the other three rounds to try and bring a big draw back in play, to see if it would work. But then I hooked a couple out of play because of that.”
Spieth entered the final round at T-12 after rounds of 68-67-67. With his final-round tinkering and even-par 71, he slipped to T-29.
Was the experiment a failure? Yes, judging by the final result. Spieth, however, is taking the long view.
“My Sunday round, I actually felt like my game was in better shape than I scored,” Spieth said. “I was just making kind of a dumb decision to start the round to try and bring in a couple more shots, but not going about it the right way.”
That’s one lesson learned, but in professional golf the lessons come on a daily basis, with one of them usually making a significant difference.
Entering this week’s PGA, Spieth owns a game that is blurred, and only he has the glasses to bring it into focus. He just needs to locate them.
Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @AlexMiceli