Jordan Spieth can feel his game coming back even if the world hasn’t seen it yet. Golf is cruel that way. Style, acumen, skills don’t always translate to the scorecard. The quality of a golfer’s swing doesn’t necessarily correlate with his score. Greens can be unforgiving. Courses are subject to mercurial weather, which can result in disaster or perfection, depending on which way the wind blows or the grass bends.
Sometimes you can do everything right and still have it all come out wrong. Spieth has experienced this firsthand. At the RBC Heritage tournament in April, he saw a perfect read turn into disaster, thanks to a gust. “Yeah, one of my irons went in the water,” he told reporters after a round, “but it’s the best 8-iron I’ve hit in a year-and-a-half.”
If you’ve ever played golf, you’ve had it happen to you. It doesn’t matter if you are a novice golfer, weekend duffer, golf pro or pro golfer. You worked on some flaws, got some tips, practiced and saw improvement. Your range balls are flying longer and straighter. Your chipping is more predictable, your putting less of a horror show. You’re breaking 100 today, you can feel it. You go play a round, and everything is still feeling good. You’re hitting it well, and it’s even going where you wanted it to half the time. But by the time you’ve parked the cart, you’ve added up your scores and been doused with cold water. It’s a 105, just like last time.
Spieth isn’t shooting 105s. But since placing third in the 2018 Masters, his reality has been shaped by golf’s most aggravating—and relatable—phenomenon. He’s had to piece together a game that fell apart, had to endure multiple finishes outside the top 20, missing cuts at the Memorial and U.S. Open, missing more cuts, including his first tournament of 2019. His ranking fell from third to 39th before he tied for third at the 2019 PGA Championship, tied for eighth at the Charles Schwab and then tied for seventh at the Memorial on June 2. That stretch bumped his ranking up to 28th.
Spieth’s age—he is 25 years old, his 26th birthday is in July—only adds more intrigue to his saga. The meteoric rise, the downspell, the wild fluctuations in his finishes on the tour—all of these things have happened to a man who turned pro only six-and-a-half years ago and still has tremendous upside. As he readies himself for the U.S. Open, Spieth hopes the world sees what he and those close to him know to be true.
Nobody gets to play great golf nonstop for an entire career. But Spieth certainly tried—and almost succeeded.
His senior year of high school, he won every tournament he entered. He spent just a year-and-a-half at the University of Texas, winning a national championship and earning All-America honors; became the No. 1 amateur in the world; got his first PGA Tour win at 19; finished second at the Masters a year later; and became the youngest American in 85 years to play in the Ryder Cup before winning three major championships between 2015 and 2017.
It seemed like the good times would never end.
“The trajectory he was on, winning three majors by really the age of 23, and that being a fact and then being in the hunt in other major championships,” says John Fields, who coached Spieth at Texas. “If he sustained that same trajectory, he’d win 50 majors over a career. That’s not sustainable, that’s never been done. Nobody’s going to do that. I mean, you look at Tiger [Woods], he’s at 15 now.”
The woes began in early 2018, when he was ranked second in the world. After the 2018 Masters, Spieth shot 70 or worse in eight of his next 16 rounds, which spanned five tournaments and included two missed cuts.
When everything started going wrong, people wondered what had happened. This wasn’t a regular dude on the golf course drinking beer; it was a professional—and not any pro, but the potential GOAT.
Experts with a sharp eye could see the fall before it happened. Some of the flaws were hiding in plain sight. For one thing, Spieth has never been much of a long hitter off the tee, which puts more pressure on the other elements of his game. His decline played into these faults: His tee shots got less accurate, his iron work worsened, as did his putter on the greens.
But others close to Spieth knew his struggles were about more than just his swing. Inquiring minds didn’t know the daily changes, the challenges, he faced—and the effect they had on him.
“A-year-and-a-half ago he had [mononucleosis], then he got married, and in the meantime him and [swing coach] Cameron [McCormick] were making some adjustments for the best golf swing to go into the future,” Fields says. “All those things dictated either a slower development or even kind of a ‘one step forward, two steps back’ kind of a situation.”
Cathy Marino coached Spieth at Dallas Jesuit College Preparatory School, and before that she played on the LPGA Tour in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. “Golf’s just a weird sport,” she says. “You have bounces, you have all these outside, external things that influence whether you score well or not that are outside your control. Sometimes you don’t play very well and you score well. I think that’s the appealing nature of the game and the challenge.”
Marino barely saw Spieth have so much as a bad round in high school, let alone a slump. She considers him one of the best she’s ever seen at “the art of scoring,” which she sees as a mixture of putting and something more ethereal.
“It’s still a mysterious thing, somewhat,” Marino says. “I’ve encountered a lot of really good players that look great, they hit the ball so good, they even look like they have really good short games, and they just don’t score as well. It’s fascinating.”
According to McCormick, Spieth also had to deal with the pressure of his own high expectations. “He’s got one other intangible”—a voice in his head. It went like, “What’s wrong with you, Jordan? And why isn’t Jordan doing this and why isn’t Jordan doing that? That’s a bunch of noise you have to deal with. I think initially he was trying to deal with it.”
Spieth admitted three years ago that fame was a struggle for him. “I still find myself struggling with what’s the right thing to do,” he told the Associated Press. “Oftentimes I come off the course and I hit it poorly that day. And it’s a frustrating feeling trying to look for answers, knowing you need to go work on it, and then you’ve got all the people asking for something. And if you don’t do it, they give you a bad rap.
“On the other side, how great is it to have fans? How great is it to be able to influence people in a positive way?”
Tournament to tournament, the media started to lose patience with the former No. 1 player in the world. Last August, the New York Post wrote a scathing story calling Spieth “a mess” during the PGA Championship, after he admitted he’d been working on the wrong aspect of his swing for two months. In February, Golf Digest said Spieth improving was going to take some convincing.
Outside noise plays a factor with any golfer, let alone a young one. “The media makes golf more mentally tough because they like to point out all the difficulties and all the bad things,” says Josh Radcliff, a teammate of Spieth’s at Dallas Jesuit who still plays competitively. “It’s like, ‘Oh, what happened on that triple bogey on hole 15?’ How about the six birdies I had throughout the round?”
What the noise wasn’t taking into account was that Spieth had, in fact, revised his game, made adjustments. The fruit of his work just hadn’t appeared yet. That’s the other trick of golfing—convincing the external world of the experience you know to be real.
“It’s tantamount to a sales person,” Fields says. “They’re doing all the right things, they’re working really hard, they’re putting all their effort into their sales, and they just can’t close the deal for one small reason or another. And then, a year later, they’re doing the exact same thing, and they close 10 deals in a row. Why is that? I don’t know. But that’s why they tell you over the length of a career, if you do things right, it balances out.”
By March 2019, his scoring average was up to 71.26, which was almost three strokes higher than his tour-leading 2017 mark. He was 184th in greens in regulation, and once he got there he was 116th in putting.
As the spring progressed, Spieth started feeling better, more comfortable. He showed flourishes, but results varied. The brief glimpses of greatness got people talking: Who is Jordan Spieth right now? They wondered. Was he finally coming around? Had his game really changed?
Spieth provided an answer after the Memorial. “I felt very different,” he told reporters. “I've put a lot of work in the game. It's felt like—it wasn't like I felt the same standing on the tee January and February as now. It's totally different. And there's still quite a bit of work to do.”
If there’s one belief golfers share, it is that hard work pays off. They know it can happen anytime, even if not always when you think it will. Spieth hopes it will happen at the U.S. Open; and he has shown signs—three top-10 finishes in a row—that he is no longer just talking about playing better.
“I am not concerned at all,” Marino says. “I think he’s gained some mental toughness that will really help him in the future. … I’m already seeing it now. I would watch for him in the U.S. Open—he likes that golf course.”