PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Before and after each of his rounds at his most recent tournament in Mexico, Jordan Spieth could be seen on the driving range trying to find what ails him. The pursuit of that magic remains one of the game’s most mystifying endeavors.
A three-time major champion with 11 PGA Tour victories and a lengthy run at No. 1 in the world by age 24, Spieth has slipped to ordinary since winning The Open at Royal Birkdale in 2017, failing to win and rarely contending in the ensuing 2½ years.
Frustration has, at times, bubbled to the surface, but in almost all interactions and through endless questions about his quest to return to the top of the game, Spieth has done his best to remain positive, taking the good out of any results and trying to build on it.
“I still have some work, hopefully not very significant work, but I’m on the right track in my swing to get to where I feel I can be at that 2015 level again,” Spieth said recently. “I want it as bad or more than I did then. There is no complacency. And I believe the next run will be as fun as the first.”
Those were some amazing times for Spieth, who posted 14 worldwide victories from 2013 to 2017, winning five times on the PGA Tour in 2015 — capturing the Masters and U.S. Open, tying for fourth at The Open and finishing second at the PGA Championship.
Spieth won the FedEx Cup that year and was still ranked as high as No. 2 in the world in 2017.
Now he enters this week’s Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass ranked 53rd in the world, having fallen out of the top 50 for the first time since 2013, not long after he turned professional.
“I’ve partnered with him, I’m close to him, I like him,” said U.S. Ryder Cup team captain Steve Stricker, who served as Spieth’s captain at the 2017 Presidents Cup, as well as a vice captain at the 2018 Ryder Cup.
“I feel bad that that he has this extra pressure on himself to try and play well. Now it feels like he’s really grinding. He just doesn’t look as consistent. He’s not been great off the tee. And then that affects everything. It gets into your confidence. You’re not seeing the ball do what you think it should be doing. A shot creeps in that you don’t think you should be hitting. That just wrecks your feel and your confidence.”
During Spieth’s successful stretch, he seemed to make putts from everywhere, all of which overshadowed the fact that he was a more than capable ball striker who gave himself plenty of chances.
But after winning The Open, his putting slid, to the point in 2018 that he was often questioned about what had gone wrong on the greens. After ranking 39th on the PGA Tour in strokes-gained putting in 2017, Spieth dropped nearly 100 spots to 136th. He was ninth in that category in 2015.
And yet, in 2019, Spieth improved on the greens but saw everything else fall off. Most notably, he has gotten worse every year from 2015 in strokes gained off the tee. He was 15th on the PGA Tour in that category when he was player of the year; last year he was 176th, and this year is 192 — although with a small sample size.
“The underlying issue is that the game is hard,” said Andy North, the two-time U.S. Open champion and ESPN analyst. “And when you get going on some stretches where you don’t play as you want to, every single player who has ever played the game at a decent level has gone through exactly what he has gone through over the last year or so.
“You’re working so hard to fix what you think is broken that you forget to play golf. You’re so concerned with technical stuff. When you were 14 or 15 years old, you went out and played. Now you’re a professional, and we all think we have to be better than we are. And you do stuff to try to make yourself better. And sometimes that stuff doesn’t work. In golf, we probably make it more complicated when it might be best to go to back to basic stuff and simplify things.”
In each of the past two years, Spieth failed to qualify for the Tour Championship — which takes only the top 30 players. His best chances to win in 2018 were at the Masters, where a final-round 64 helped him finish third; and at The Open, where he was tied for the 54-hole lead, didn’t make a birdie at Carnoustie, and tied for ninth.
Last year, he seemed to be turning the corner with a stretch of three straight top-10 finishes, including a tie for third at the PGA Championship. But he had just two top-10s the rest of the year and really wasn’t a Sunday factor anywhere.
This year, a final-round 67 at Pebble Beach helped him get a tie for ninth, which briefly moved him back into the top 50 in the world and got him in the WGC-Mexico Championship.
But at high altitude in Mexico City, Spieth tied for 58th, never shot in the 60s and finished 22 strokes behind Patrick Reed. And now he’s at the Players, where he has missed the cut in four of the past five years.
“Golf is a roller-coaster ride. You’re going to have ups and downs,” said 12-time PGA Tour winner and current NBC analyst Paul Azinger. “The down time, you want to make it as short as possible. I think part of his problem is now is that his expectations are trying to live up to what he’s already done instead of trying to just be the best he can be each and every day. When you’ve got big shoes to fill, and they’re your own shoes, that makes it more difficult.”
Aside from a move to a stronger grip earlier this year, Spieth has not gone the route of making wholesale changes for the sake of shaking things up. Michael Greller is still his caddie. Cameron McCormick is still his coach. And his management team remains the same.
All were on board for the good times. Now they are trying to help him navigate the rough times, with an eye on returning to past glory.