“I could go into negativities, but that doesn’t do me any good at this point.”—Jordan Spieth, on the NoLayingUp podcast
The two most boring stories in human existence are the story of somebody else’s dream, and the story of somebody else’s fantasy team. I’ll spare you my dreams, but I am going to test your patience with a very brief story from my 2019 PGA Tour fantasy draft (league details here for the curious).
It was the first round, ninth pick in a 12-team league, I was on the clock, and that situation produced three outcomes that would have been unthinkable even a year earlier:
1. Jordan Spieth was still available.
2. When I selected him, some of the other players made fun of me.
3. Thus far, sadly, they were right.
There are better summaries of Spieth’s fall from grace, but that one works just fine to encapsulate how the best player of his generation has vanished from the radar. The implicit question in a piece like this is whether Spieth can win at Augusta, and on that front I would point you to Joel Beall, who made three important points last week: First, that Spieth is already a legend at Augusta, having already held as many post-round leads there as Tiger Woods. Second, and conversely, he’s playing relatively poorly right now, and third, although the Masters winner hasn’t always racked up a victory in the January-through-March stretch, he has usually captured at least two top-15 finishes. So while Spieth is the ultimate horse for the ultimate course, historical momentum is squarely against him.
Or it was, anyway.
Spieth’s performance over the first three rounds at this weekend’s Valero Open comes as a surprise to those who have watched his two-year plummet down the world rankings. His victory dry spell will reach the two-year mark this July, and for the casual viewer, nothing in his recent play indicated this Texas breakthrough. Thursday and Friday put him in the final group, but it was Saturday, maybe, that was the most heartening performance of all—after shooting six over on the front nine in what looked like the latest one-day collapse, he posted 31 on the back to scrounge his way to a 73. Nothing in his recent past could have augured that kind of in-round damage control.
But it was no surprise to Spieth himself.
In a fascinating conversation with Chris Solomon on the NoLayingUp podcast, recorded the week of the WGC-Dell Match Play, Spieth first went into great depth on his struggles, and described their origins as follows:
“For me it was physical. It started with kind of the putter blade, how I was viewing things, and my alignment got off because my eyes were not seeing where the putter blade was actually pointed and therefore I couldn’t trust it. And then it bled into to kind of my full swing, and I just got off in setup that then I’d try to fix the wrong things and I’d get down this spiral … of more inconsistent golf. So recently I’ve been shooting shooting five under, and then I’d be shooting four over … in other words, I just had to time to the club better over the past year or so than I’ve ever had to do.”
His analysis of how he fell on hard times proves a couple facts we already suspected. First, Spieth is brilliant. Second, as you might have guessed if you’ve ever listened to one of the pre-shot Greller Dialogues, he’s neurotic. His brain is his great strength, but as with many analytical people, there is a tendency to spiral into realms of over-thought when trouble rises, and to hear Spieth narrate his 2018 and 2019 season is to listen to an anxiety dream. There are three “swing feels” he pursued from bygone periods of transcendence, but none of them were quite accessible, and in the course of trying to fix himself, he routinely grooved new habits that turned out to be harmful, which ultimately put him in a place markedly worse than “back to square one.” It cost him sleep, and it’s easy to imagine a sense of panic, or something close to it, encroaching on his thought process as he followed one false path after another.
Many golfers speak about the need to “fake it ’til you make it”—to model a confident demeanor even if you don’t feel very confident, with the hope that results will follow—but Spieth is a little too cerebral for self-delusion. In the end, to emerge from this hole, he was going to have to think his way out anyway. According to him, with the help of Cameron McCormick, he has.
“We finally got on top of it recently,” he told Solomon. “We finally figured it out, and now it’s just a matter of repetitions.”
Of course, that’s easy to say, and believing him must inevitably be an act of faith. Matt Every once told me at the Colonial in Fort Worth that he was about to start playing really, really well, and in the 10 tournaments he played from that point forward in the 2014 season, he missed the cut five times and finished better than 39th just once. Professional golfers in a slump have to believe they’re perpetually on the verge, but my personal faith is that Spieth wouldn’t say this if he didn’t believe it. He’s not given to banalities, and he’s too rigorous in this thought process—and too realistic about himself—to pump himself up with thin platitudes. If he says that, he means it.
And the Valero is proving the point. Which doesn’t mean he’s going to win—he’s eight strokes off the lead, in a tie for 15th, heading into the final round—or that he’s free from the 18-hole meltdowns that plagued him in January and February. But favorable omens abound—he was among the leaders in strokes-gained/putting in his two rounds at the Players Championship. He finished 1-1-1 at the WGC-Dell Match Play, falling just one hole short of a chance to make the knockout rounds. He’s fighting for a top 10 or better in Texas.
I can’t responsibly predict that Jordan Spieth will win the Masters. But I can predict the imminent end of the nightmare—the repetitions are piling up, and the results won’t be far behind. Spieth is too good to stay in the black forests forever, and when he emerges, he will by necessity emerge with confidence. Put a man like that on his favorite course, and danger blooms brighter than the azaleas.