He’s only 25 years old. It’s important to remember that … and so easy to forget.
Easy, because since the arrival of Tiger Woods in the late 1990s, golf has not had a more compelling presence than Jordan Spieth. The game was in a tailspin. Woods was losing his teeth, his glutes, his girlfriend, his game and his relevance. The sport was lacking continuity.
Spieth arrived when the face of American golf needed something fresh and sustained, something humble and innocent. Jordan Spieth was a godsend, and like a rising tide, he lifted the industry with him. It wasn’t just the fact that he won, but how he won.
In 2015, Spieth tied Woods’ records at Augusta, and then beat the imposing game of Dustin Johnson at the U.S. Open. He almost won the British Open and almost won the PGA. He lit up media centers with thoughtful answers and disarming honesty, belying his still-tender age and putting the game in an engaging place. The TMZ culture that surrounded Woods was whitewashed with promising new headlines.
Golf was flush with exciting young talent and intriguing new rivalries, led by the grounded kid from Texas, who had an Opie Taylor smile and all the right values. Spieth was winning the old-fashioned way, with accuracy, guts and guile. He played in a manner that mere mortals could appreciate and carried a figure that everyone could embrace.
The modern game is full of bombers, and the modern course architects succumb to them. It is a game, as the late Bobby Jones might had said, with which traditionalists are not familiar. A game that is not manipulated as much as it is manhandled. Sixty players on the PGA Tour last season averaged 300 or more yards with the driver.
Spieth is not distance-impaired; he was 61st among them. But he is not distance imposing. He is a thinker, a tactician, a problem-solver. And when he had it all working, when his putter was the best on the planet, it was something to see. He won 11 championships worldwide, including three majors, in roughly 2½ years and came oh-so-close in several others. That’s golfing your ball.
But Spieth recently completed the 2018 schedule without a victory, having been shut out for the first time since 2014. He even had to add an event late to his schedule, an indignity for not qualifying into the Tour Championship, to meet the minimum number required of PGA Tour members. He finished the calendar year with only three top-5s, the most recent coming in April at the Masters. He finished with only five top-10s, the most recent in July at the British Open. Over five previous years, Spieth recorded 36 top-5s among his 52 top-10s.
He will begin 2019 without a major-championship reign. Moreover, he started the fall portion of the 2018-19 PGA Tour season with a tie for 55th at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open and a missed cut at the Mayakoba Golf Classic. In recent days, Spieth has been passed in the world rankings by the Lazarus-like Woods and, at No. 16, ranks two spots behind Tony Finau, he of the one PGA Tour victory and zero major championships. If momentum is a snowstorm, Spieth is living in a desert valley.
And it’s at this point in the story that we refer you back to the beginning, i.e., the important thing to remember: Spieth is only 25.
Other things bear consideration, as well. The ’18 season was not a level playing field. Spieth was robbed of precious preparation time last winter, time that is integral to his success. He spent much of December 2017 in bed with mononucleosis, a malady that tends to linger, sometimes long after an initial recovery. Used to being ahead of the game with his advance work, Spieth began 2018 playing catchup.
As we saw at the 2015 PGA Championship – when Jason Day was using wedges to reach par 5s – Spieth doesn’t have that overpowering trump card. He needs precision, all components working, and he needs his great equalizer: the putter.
During his breakout of 2015, Spieth was fourth in strokes gained tee to green; seventh around the green; ninth in putting; and 15th in putting from 9 feet. The next season, he was second in strokes gained putting. But last season, Spieth ranked 136th in putting and 190th in putting from 9 feet. Call it a slip; call it the yips; call it exasperating by any other name.
Sometimes, he had a great notion, as demonstrated at Augusta and Carnoustie. But Spieth’s bread and butter became his ball and chain.
This winter will be different. He will be committed once more to the process: analyzing, fine-tuning, strategizing. No one is more meticulous; no one enjoys the process more. His uncharacteristic year will have a more characteristic ending – statistics, rankings and disappointing results notwithstanding, Spieth never has lost perspective.
“If I don't have a chance to win on Sunday, I'm disappointed waking up,” Spieth said at the PGA in August. “Certainly, I go out there and try my best and compete. But I understand this year's been kind of a building year for me, and I've been working back towards the level that I like to be at.”
To be sure, a winless 2018 was disappointing for Spieth, disappointing for golf. Because make no mistake: the game needs his honesty and integrity, and it needs Spieth to win for all of those reasons why he was winning before – all of the right reasons. And there’s every reason to believe that he can rebound because … don’t forget … he’s only 25 years old.
Dan O’Neill, who covered golf for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from 1989 to 2017, is an editorial consultant on golf for Fox Sports. His articles have appeared in publications such as Golfweek, Golf World, Golf.com and The Memorial magazine. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @WWDOD