When Jordan Spieth played the last five in five-under to capture the Claret Jug in dramatic fashion at Birkdale in 2017, the sky was the limit. A few days shy of his 24th birthday, it was his 11th PGA Tour win, his 14th worldwide, and his third major title.
The great white hope of American golf was back within touching distance of Dustin Johnson at the top of the world rankings, and – one or two errant swings aside – the kid from Texas had never hit it better.
Now, almost three years later, Spieth remains locked on 14 wins, has dropped to number 57 in the world rankings, and appears to have completely lost the “X-Factor” that propelled him to the very top. Nevertheless, he still remains one of the most compelling players in the game.
Has there been another player whose decline has been subject to the same microscopic scrutiny? Probably not. Sure, Tiger Woods’ struggles were under the spotlight – as he always is – but at best we’d see Tiger a dozen times a year and we often didn’t see him at all as injury threatened to ravage his body and latter years.
Spieth is never injured, plays an average of 25 or 26 time a year, and is almost always in the featured groupings. What’s more, he’s as likely to shoot 66 as 76. And who doesn’t want to see that?
But just how did Jordan go from being the heir apparent to being an also ran? From being one of the best ball strikers on tour – as he was in 2017 – to being ranked well outside the top 100? From being an automatic qualifier on U.S. teams to not being considered for a captain’s pick?
Well, that’s something that even Spieth himself doesn’t have the answer to, but I’d argue that the starting point came just two months after the Open Championship win as he stood on the 18th tee at Glen Oaks Golf Club in New York alongside Dustin Johnson. You may remember this, for it was world numbers one and two in a playoff at the Northern Trust, the first event of the FedEx Cup Playoff series. Spieth, up first, corked one out of the screws down the centre of the fairway on the sharp dogleg left hole to leave himself 182 yards to the flag.
Jordan’s drive carried 291 yards and rolled out to 315. That’s not short hitting, not by a long way, but it’s not in DJ’s league either. Johnson set up aiming a good 30 degrees left of Spieth’s line and took a line directly over the hazard which required a carry of about 304 yards. And he carried it with ease, his monstrous 341-yard tee shot leaving him 93 yards to the hole.
Though he’d only hit it 25-yards longer, he had 89 yards less to the pin. And the rest is history. Spieth’s more than respectable par was swatted aside as DJ flipped a sand-wedge to two feet and rolled the winning putt home.
Even in a year where he was hitting the ball longer than ever before, this was a different game and the realisation must’ve been painful for the three-time major champion. Though Spieth would go on to play reasonably well for the remainder of the season, by the time he re-emerged for the 2018 season, he was a different player.
He’d added five yards off the tee but he’d lost the consistency that propelled him to the very top of the game. In chasing distance, he’d gone down the rabbit hole and there was no telling where it was going to take him.
The thing about inconsistency is that it’s often contagious. Poor performance in one department means an overreliance on the others, and on Tour, overreliance is a recipe for disaster.
But for Spieth fans – and there are plenty of die-hards – it’s the hope that keeps them going. After each good opening round, the trumpet sounds heralding the return of the king, but alas, the wheels have inevitably come off leaving the fan-club lamenting a series of “what if” scenarios.
And I must admit, after hearing him speak so candidly about his struggles, about how he’s been facing the white heat of PGA Tour battle with a game that’s effectively superglued together, I’ve become a big Spieth fan too.
Muhammad Ali once said that it’s not the mountains ahead that wear you out, it’s the pebble in your shoe.
Spieth’s had a pebble in his for a long time now, and 72 holes is a long walk in discomfort.