News & Opinion

Jordan Spieth looks like threat for Masters

Jordan Spieth at 2020 PGA Championship
Jordan Spieth, who already owns a green jacket, would be a good fit for a 2nd one in April at Augusta National.

Despite a winless 3½ years, Spieth recently has found his form. Besides, does anybody scramble better at Augusta National?

If cynicism is a golf writer’s best friend, Jordan Spieth swiftly has emerged as a threat to that trusty partnership. Three consecutive strong showings on the PGA Tour have revived a career basically dormant for 3½ years;

Spieth’s last top-five finish had occurred at the PGA Championship in May 2019. He was the only storyline with substance heading into the final round at TPC Scottsdale earlier this month, and though his Sunday stumbles left Spieth in a tie for fourth, he immediately rebounded with a T-3 at Pebble Beach.

A T-15 at Riviera did little to dim the notion that Spieth is “back,” as they say, given that he was gone for so long that any seismic shift in performance would serve as cause for elation within the golden boy’s fan club, but this little surge is different. He’s still driving his ball into woebegone places, missing more fairways than he hits and playing a much tougher golf course than almost everybody else.

Despite that familiar trend, Spieth suddenly is working his way into the weekend mix. That alone hardly qualifies him as a favorite at the Masters, which is six weeks away, but the longer you look at the game’s current competitive landscape, the more you begin to realize that Spieth, flaws and all, now deserves serious consideration on any thinking man’s short list of pre-tournament contenders at Augusta National.

Go ahead and call him a reach. The ultimate dark horse. Has any light-colored pony ever won a Kentucky Derby?

Defending champion Dustin Johnson (5½-1 odds, according to VegasInsider.com) is the obvious Masters favorite for the time being; nothing that happens on the Florida Swing is likely to change that standing. Johnson is followed by Rory McIlroy at 10-1 (crazy!), Jon Rahm at 11-1 (legitimate player, lousy price) and the well-known trio of Bryson DeChambeau, Justin Thomas and Brooks Koepka, all hanging out in the 12-1 neighborhood.

Of those six, Johnson is the only one with a green jacket. Seeing how Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods are the only men to successfully defend a Masters title, it’s hard to imagine D.J. joining such illustrious company. Rahm has produced consistent quality since winning the FedEx Cup playoff event in Chicago last fall, warranting his inclusion, but at 11-1? Thomas did little on the West Coast Swing. DeChambeau barely has registered in 2021. Koepka picked up a much-needed victory in Phoenix, but even that didn’t return him to the top 10 in the Official World Golf Ranking. He’s currently 12th.

McIlroy, meanwhile, remains an underachieving enigma, which takes us back to Spieth. He has won a Masters (2015), blown a Masters (2016) and fumbled yet another with a closing 75 (2017). The fact that he has factored time and time again should not be discounted in this context, although one could aptly reason that Spieth’s lengthy winless drought might be a bigger hurdle than those past failures.

Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. It’s another of those popular quips, primarily as a means of commiseration to 17-year-olds on the wrong end of a crumbled relationship, but in Spieth’s case, there is relevance. He is a battler, a fiery grinder like few we have seen in this or any other era. He is also a derailed prodigy, a three-time major champion at age 24 who tumbled from the game’s top tier perhaps faster and farther than anyone since David Duval.

Spieth’s miseries off the tee have been chronicled in great detail over those 3½ years – he ranks 228th in driving accuracy, which is why he’s 207th in greens in regulation – making it difficult to comprehend how the same guy could possibly rank 33rd in birdies per round (4.41). Moreover, his errant collection of hooks and slices shouldn’t hurt Spieth nearly as much at Augusta National as they did at, say, Riviera. His short game remains a timely and invaluable weapon, allowing him to pick up almost half a stroke on the field per round, which is eighth-best on the tour.

Chipping and putting were the biggest reasons Spieth won the 2015 Masters, and if he ever wins another, chipping and putting will become the biggest reasons again. His visit with swing coach-extraordinaire Butch Harmon last month was overblown by the media, according to Harmon himself, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t news. Nor does it disguise the fact that Spieth has been a far more successful player since Harmon’s eyeballs arrived on the scene.

There is simply no overestimating the importance of economizing strokes on and around the greens at Augusta National. The 2020 Masters was an extreme anomaly because it was held in November, on much softer turf unscorched by Georgia’s mid-spring sun. Add a few inches of pre-tournament rain, and the world’s best golfers were getting up and down with their eyes closed. It is highly unlikely that will be the case in six weeks, at which point Spieth’s greatest strength will amount to the greatest strength anyone brings to the old ballyard.

I’ve got five bucks that says Spieth will beat McIlroy, straight-up. As for the rest of what little disposable income I have, some of it might be invested on the hunch that he’ll beat everyone else, too. Jordan Spieth has done that before. At some point, he’s going to do that again.

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