Winless in 2½ years, Spieth enters this week’s Hero World Challenge seeking to reclaim some of his lost magic
The good news is that Jordan Spieth is still just 26 years old, an age at which most of his competitive kin have yet to win a high-profile PGA Tour event, let alone three major championships. At a time when America’s best golfer (Dustin Johnson) still was searching for his first major title, Spieth’s 2015 emergence served as a refreshing jolt to a landscape in dire need of refinement, at least from Uncle Sam’s perspective.
Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson were heroes from another decade. Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy was the dominant young show pony, but once a 21-year-old Spieth galloped into town that spring and picked off back-to-back majors in historic fashion – co-holder of the Masters scoring record with Woods (270), youngest U.S. Open champ since Bobby Jones (1923) – the fair-haired Texan ended any discussion as to the game’s Next Big Thing.
How that same guy could enter this week’s Hero World Challenge (tee times) not having won a tournament in almost 2½ years is almost inconceivable, given Spieth’s career trajectory at the time of his last victory, the 2017 British Open. The kid’s tenacity and brilliance under pressure never were more vividly displayed than during that final-nine rally to beat Matt Kuchar at Royal Birkdale. From the remarkable bogey save at the 13th to the 5-under flurry over the following four holes, Spieth’s third major triumph was a landmark performance punctuated by resourcefulness and sheer grit.
Now he’s down to 44th in the Official World Golf Ranking, leaving an always emotional player as disturbed as he was once unperturbed. Spieth’s frustration has trickled into his dealings with the media in recent months, which is understandable, because nobody falls from second to 44th (after a six-month stretch atop the OWGR) without suffering from an injury. He’s tired of talking about the slump. When he does address the matter, Spieth answers with gilded optimism.
He says he’s close to working things out with longtime swing coach Cameron McCormick, that they’re just a tweak away. Spieth has held his head high during the fallow period, but the months continue to pile up, which takes us to the bad news.
Is this the new normal?
Is Jordan Spieth slowly becoming the next David Duval?
Call me a masochist; call the mere suggestion of such a comparison to be outrageously errant, but there are similarities between the two downward spirals. Duval won 13 times from late 1997 to the summer of 2001, racking up 11 of those victories in an 18-month span that carried him to the top spot of the OWGR in 1999. Woods once confided to me that Duval was the player whom he feared most inside the ropes. Duval could do it all, and for the better part of four years, he did it all on a regular basis.
His final victory came at the ’01 British Open. Within a year of that lone major title, Duval was struggling mightily, largely because he couldn’t drive the ball accurately enough to take advantage of his other skills. He tumbled from 26th in fairways hit (1999) to 176th in 2002, then made just four cuts in 20 starts the following season. After a seven-month hiatus at the start of 2004, Duval returned to action at the U.S. Open. He shot 83-82.
There are several theories as to why Duval’s career came to a screeching halt. The most prevalent is that he injured his back while reshaping his doughboy physique in late 2001, then made swing compensations to deal with those issues, which made everything worse. I don’t doubt any of that, but having gotten to know Duval quite well during his prime and maintaining a strong relationship with him through the collapse, I have little question that he began losing his passion for competitive golf shortly after claiming the Claret Jug at Royal Lytham.
The thrill of victory wasn’t what it had been. Duval spent his entire life learning how to hit a golf ball like few have ever hit it, and once he’d accomplished the task, the burden of maintaining that level became less appealing than taking his life in another direction. We see it more often with LPGA superstars (Annika Sorenstam, Lorena Ochoa) than with the alpha males, but on occasion, it does happen.
Spieth ranks 295th in driving accuracy through three starts in 2019-20, which is both a tiny sample size and the continuation of a career-compromising trend. He finished 181st in fairways hit last season, when he missed as many cuts (four) as he posted top 10s for the second consecutive year. We’re talking about a guy who was 50th in strokes gained off the tee in 2018, then fell to 176th, meaning there is absolutely no mystery as to the root of his troubles.
Much like Duval, Spieth is playing a far more difficult golf course than almost everybody else in the field, and he’s been doing it on a weekly basis for a while. If he wasn’t one of the greatest putters ever, which is hardly an exaggeration, there’s no telling how bad things might have gotten by now. Spieth’s ability to hole putts and salvage terrible ball-striking rounds clearly has become an extension of his fierce determination.
It might be the most admirable quality a pro golfer can possess. Is it more valuable than striking a ball off a wooden peg and walking on a straight line to its intended destination? One way or another, the issues surrounding Jordan Spieth’s direction will sort themselves out.