Four years ago, the idea that Jordan Spieth could fly under the radar seemed impossible. Spieth was the radar in 2015. Two Sports Illustrated covers championed back-to-back victories at the Masters and U.S. Opens, both of them now wonderful time capsules that show just how eager the golf world was to crown its next superstar: The first ran with a “Jordan Rules” banner streaming across the front, and the second ticked off major championship boxes like winning them was as simple as completing a grocery list.
Even a year ago, when Spieth went eight under on Sunday at the Masters and came within a missed putt and a tree limb of catching Patrick Reed, a comeback felt almost preordained. While most people see speedy greens, tricky lies, and pressure-packed situations at Augusta, something is unlocked for Spieth there, and he almost always finds himself in the hunt near the end.
But these last few months have been tumultuous. To understand just how off Spieth has been, look no further than his Masters odds. The one-time champion and four-time top-three finisher is available at 16-to-1, the longest odds he’s had since his first go-round in 2014. This may not seem like a massive departure—odds fluctuate all the time and can be radically different from tournament to tournament—but it shows how little reason Spieth has given the betting public to believe in him, even at Augusta National.
He’s made himself available to speak about his issues, talking after tournaments and rounds about his struggle to find consistency, even going on a recent No Laying Up podcast to detail exactly what went wrong and how he’s been trying to fix it. But the more open and free he’s been talking about his problems, the more his statements have almost seemed to fade to background noise. Without signs of improvement and without anything to speculate about, things have just been … quiet.
“I’ve actually gotten certainly less [media] requests lately, which I guess is good and bad, because typically the better you’re playing, the more requests you’re getting,” Spieth told No Laying Up last week. “But at the same time, it’s kind of nice because I can kind of almost fly under the radar, go about my own business, work my way back to where I want to be.”
And where he wants to be is certainly not where he is: ranked 109th on the PGA Tour in scoring average, 172nd in strokes gained tee to green, 111th in strokes gained on the approach, etc. The stats haven’t been good, and his play largely hasn’t been either. Spieth hasn’t finished better than tied for 24th in any tournament so far this season, and he hasn’t won on Tour since the 2017 Open Championship.
Spieth told No Laying Up that the issues with his game started late in 2017. His eye alignment while putting got off course, and he felt like he couldn’t trust his blade—to the point that he was asking caddy Michael Greller for a line on 3-foot putts. Those issues eventually moved to his swing, and by mid-2018 his ball striking had also reached a low point. He and coach Cameron McCormick tried to adjust and rework his swing to get it back to a place of confidence, but instead all Spieth found was inconsistency. And doubt.
“It’s like everyone’s rooting for you, everyone’s rooting for you … and then you get to a certain level and it’s like people want to see something go wrong,” Spieth told No Laying Up. “It’s just human nature. Like, people want to see the Warriors lose, unless you’re a Warriors fan.”
Spieth made it clear that he wasn’t referring to himself as golf’s Golden State, but at his best, it’s not a bad comparison. When he’s dialed in, Spieth hits iron shots that can overcome (self-imposed) 20-minute delays and Happy Gilmore–esque obstacles. His putting, which was the first thing to go when he hit his slump, is usually the part of his game that can save him—remember “Go get that”? And while he’s not a long-ball bomber like many of his contemporaries, his mental control more than makes up for the difference in distance off the tee—that is, when it’s not the thing that’s throwing him off.
Inconsistency has plagued Spieth all spring. According to golf statistician Justin Ray, at one point in February, Spieth was minus-19 over the first rounds of his three most recent PGA Tour starts, but plus-3 in rounds 2 through 4. And even though Spieth has said he feels like his game is clicking back into form, he experienced a similar pattern just last weekend at the Valero Texas Open: He was eight under and tied for second place after the first 36 holes, and then went one over the next two days—including Saturday, when he shot a 42 over the front nine and then went five under on the back—to finished tied for 30th.
Despite the lingering questions of whether Spieth can put together four solid rounds in a tournament or what type of ball striking and putting he’ll have in store this weekend, he’s walking into Augusta with some confidence—the kind of swagger we haven’t seen from Spieth recently. “This is the start of my season,” Spieth said last week. Which means now the questions really begin.
Incredibly, Spieth says playing at Augusta National takes him out of his own head. Which would be one of the more ridiculous things I’d ever heard if Jordan Spieth wasn’t the one saying it.
“I feel great about that golf course every time I play it,” Spieth said last week. “I love it. I find something new—a different angle, a different break. I learn more, and stuff just kind of sticks to me better around there because there’s more to think about. I think so much about the course on every shot … and you just get out of your own way—or I do.”
Or I do. Understatement of the year.
Let’s just say, Augusta is not like that for most players. Uncovering the intricacies of that course is a time-honored tradition that generally includes a lot of frustration, bad shots that look like good shots at the time they’re hit, and occasional Tin Cup–like implosions. Spieth has had his fair share of frustrations at this golf course. But each time he stumbles, it seems in service of some greater understanding of the course, some higher mastery that only few have ever gained access to. Spieth says his infamous meltdown at no. 12 three years ago helped fix a swing that had been giving him trouble all Masters week—he went on to win at Colonial the following month—and his birdies at 13 and 15 proved that even when the course knocks him down, it has yet to knock him out.
Even among those who have tapped into the Augusta National Tree of Knowledge, Spieth largely stands alone. Of players with a minimum of 20 Masters rounds played, Spieth leads the field with an average of 3.26 strokes gained per round, according to 15th Club. That’s 0.74 strokes more than the next-closest name on the list, Ben Hogan, and 0.79 more than Tiger Woods.
Spieth's start the best ever at Augusta? How dominant was Hogan around the fabled pines? Jack's unbreakable records and a 'win for the ages' that truly was, from Tiger Woods. @JustinRayGolf takes a dive in to Masters history with strokes gained: Augustahttps://t.co/icQLTStW0s pic.twitter.com/5FqAcejGlZ— 15th Club (@15thClub) April 8, 2019
Spieth’s relationship to Augusta is reciprocal. The fans there are keyed in on his game. They regularly give him standing ovations; the adoration can be felt through the television, like last year when he stormed in from nine back to start Sunday’s round and elicited near Tiger-like roars as he chased after Reed. And Spieth himself feels it—both on the course and in his memories of past rounds.
He recently reminisced about 2016 and the infamous Rae’s Creek incident. But even that has turned into somewhat of a pleasant memory through the years: “I just felt like the world was rooting for me to come back, and I felt like I could do it even despite what had happened earlier in the round,” he said recently, talking about the crowd that greeted him walking between the 15th and 16th holes that day. “It gives me goosebumps when I think about it. It was one of the coolest moments I’ll ever have in golf.”
Spieth is one of, if not the greatest golfer of his generation. And it’s not a quiet generation. Justin Thomas has found his footing, with multiple top-10 major finishes, a win at the 2017 PGA Championship, and an unflappable quality. Rickie Fowler is still searching for his first major win, but his consistency from year to year is legendary. Then of course there’s Brooks Koepka, who’s won back-to-back U.S. Opens, last year’s PGA Championship, and is nearly robotic in how easily he gets it done.
As he’s been going on this putt- and swing-searching journey, the class around Spieth has risen up to meet him. Meanwhile he has become something of a wild card. His place within this group still feels secure—one bad year doesn’t erase all the good performances he put forth over the first six years of his professional career. But as Spieth reorients himself on golf’s map, he’s facing an even tougher landscape than before.
The roars will likely still come this weekend—especially if he can get some momentum going early—and the uneasiness surrounding his game won’t last forever. But now the question for Spieth is whether he can tune out both and center his game at a place that has long seemed like his second home.