News & Opinion

Spieth seeks answers amid struggles

Jordan Spieth sometimes looks down at his golf ball on short putts, and sometimes he looks at the hole. These days, he’s spending a lot of his time looking in the mirror. 

It’s summer, the thick of major-championship season, and whither Jordan? He is struggling. Mightily. His putting has been poor, and just as he thinks he has some positive momentum there, his usually dependable ball-striking took a couple of weeks off. Spieth lacks confidence right now, which is troubling. After all, it was Spieth’s robust confidence and tremendous early success – two majors at 21 – that fueled so many other young players – Justin Thomas, Patrick Reed, Daniel Berger, Xander Schauffele and others – as they climbed to new heights. 

Spieth, who won’t turn 25 until next month, is coming off back-to-back missed cuts, departing Shinnecock Hills and the U.S. Open after disheartening rounds of 78-71. He put himself in a huge hole early by starting bogey, triple bogey. That was on the heels of failing to make it to the weekend at the Memorial. Those are two big misses. Spieth's last top 10 was at the Masters in April.

In recent weeks, Jordan Spieth has produced some can’t-bear-to-watch golf.

In recent weeks, Jordan Spieth has produced some can’t-bear-to-watch golf.

He doesn’t seem to be alarmed – golf runs in cycles, and he is too good of a player to panic – but you could safely say that Spieth has been head-scratching and searching hard within. Golfers can be like boxers, never wanting to show the slightest weakness. In talking about his putting – he is constantly asked to address it – Spieth continues to say that he is beginning to “see his lines” better. But after saying the right things for weeks – the putting is progressing and that he’s not very far off – he was candid when asked the state of his game on Wednesday in a teleconference for the upcoming 147th British Open at Carnoustie, where he’ll arrive as the man holding the Claret Jug.

“Yeah,” Spieth said, “it’s been an off-year this year. The results haven’t been up to my own expectations, and it’s been putting the majority of the year.”

Since leaving college at Texas midway through his sophomore year in late 2012 to turn pro, Spieth has asserted himself as one of the best young putters of the fearless generation that he leads. The numbers would back that up: he ranked 20th in strokes gained putting in 2014, ninth in 2015 and second in 2016. Last season he fell to 42nd, but in 23 PGA Tour starts, he still won three times, capturing that beautiful Claret Jug at Royal Birkdale. He finished in the top 3 on five other occasions. Nobody who saw him pouring in putts from all over the south of England on Sunday at the Open had any unanswered questions regarding his ability to perform on the greens. 

However, with a bucket of ice water, here are some 2017-18 Spieth putting numbers: he ranks 188th in strokes gained putting, 161st in total putting, 201st from 3 feet, 177thfrom 4 feet and 147th from inside 10 feet. 

Early in the season, such alarming numbers were discussed with a safety net, a wink of sorts. It was early, and the sample size was small. But now he has taken more than 1,400 putts. Spieth blamed poor play in his last two starts more on his ball-striking than his putting. 

Here’s another significant area to watch as Spieth tees off at 12:50 p.m. today alongside Marc Leishman and Russell Knox (tee times): Spieth’s opening-round play this season has been atrocious. He has posted rounds of 75 or higher in three of his past five starts, and five times overall (in 16 starts). 

For perspective, Spieth ranks third in second-round scoring, 11th in third-round scoring and second in final-round scoring. He is 17th in overall scoring (adjusted) and fourth in actual scoring (69.65). Alas, where is he in first-round scoring? He ranks 155th, averaging 71.79 shots. On top of placing extra pressure on himself simply to play better and get better results, there’s the extra pressure of starting better. That’s a lot of stuff to block out as he readies to make title defenses this week at Travelers and in four weeks at the British Open. 

“I think here this week, the key for me is just to get out in the first round and not try to do too much,” Spieth said. “I mean, 90-plus percent of the tournaments the last two years, I’ve thrown out my chances to win a golf tournament on Thursday.” 

Frankly, toss out a solid showing at the Houston Open (T-3) and a huge Sunday at the Masters (64, moving him all the way to third), and Spieth’s season has been a washout. He is 38th in FedEx Cup points. He knows he needs to get going.  

As his peers battled at the U.S. Open on Sunday, Spieth spent the day roaming around New York’s Central Park. Spieth is at a happy place this week, the Travelers, where a year ago he holed that incredible bunker shot in a playoff against Daniel Berger to set off seismic tremors across New England. It was the shot of the season in 2016-17, and Spieth followed the effort by riding that momentum and capturing his third major, at England’s Royal Birkdale. 

Then, his confidence could not have been higher. Now, he is on his hands and knees trying to find it as if searching for a lost contact lens. He needs a spark. This week will play a key role in how much confidence he’ll bring to Scotland and Carnoustie. 

It’s just as important as bringing his passport. 

Jeff Babineau is a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America who has covered golf since 1994, writing for such publications as The Orlando Sentinel, Golfweek and Golf World. Email: Twitter: @jeffbabz62