GREENSBORO, NORTH CAROLINA | Jordan Spieth has been to the dark side of the moon and believes he is on his way back.
It took a while to get there and it’s taking a while to get back, but Spieth, who is now three-plus years removed from his last victory, sees light where there was darkness.
To watch Spieth play and to hear him talk, it’s easy to believe him. There is a conviction not just in his words but in his golf swing, something that was missing when Spieth played in last year’s Wyndham Championship, fighting “fear” as he leaned over some shots.
There is still work to be done – Spieth hit two shots into penalty areas and a third out of bounds at last week’s event – but there were others that reminded him of how it used to be. Hitting a high, cut 2-iron close, a shot he didn’t have a year ago and hitting a controlled draw with his driver four days in a row on the difficult 18th hole at Sedgefield Country Club.
Those are shots and moments that chip away at the scar tissue that has piled up like a snowdrift.
Spieth has a simple but imposing goal – to be the player he was when the game seemed to come easily to him and he stacked up three major championship victories before his 24th birthday. Instead, Spieth has become a study in “What happened to him?” – a subject of internet trolling these days as he chases his old form.
“It really stinks. I would have liked to play at the level I’ve been at for 25 years and there have been people who have done that but I guess that’s not my path right now.”
Wisely, Spieth left social media more than two years ago, so he hasn’t seen the recent video of him standing over a driver on the practice tee last week for 24 seconds before pulling the trigger, igniting an online feeding frenzy of sorts. But he can imagine what people are saying.
He has fallen to 60th in the world rankings and will enter the FedEx Cup playoffs this week in 100th place, needing a huge week at the Northern Trust to advance to the second playoff event.
“It really stinks,” Spieth said Sunday. “I would have liked to play at the level I’ve been at for 25 years and there have been people who have done that but I guess that’s not my path right now.”
It was around noon as Spieth stopped to talk, and he already had finished the tournament – signing for a final-round 71 two hours before the leaders teed off. His 2-under-par 278 total at birdie-rich Sedgefield beat just four players who made the cut.
He used to own Sunday afternoons. Now they go on without him factoring into the storyline.
The best medium-range putter of his generation and an artist around the greens, Spieth has become the ultimate mechanic in his long game. Conquering that remains his challenge. He ranks outside the top 200 on tour in fairways hit and greens in regulation, the first statistic leading to the second one.
As inconsistent as Spieth’s ballstriking has been, he’s missed just five cuts in the past two seasons, a testament to his tenacity. But it’s been doggedly hard work for him, digging himself into a deeper hole before finding what he and swing coach Cameron McCormick believe is the way out.
“I don’t want to be (mechanical),” Spieth said. “I want to be stepping up fast, hitting it and I want to be playing all kinds of shots and be the artist. But if you can feel early into the backswing that something’s not correct, if your brain recognizes something is not correct, you just can’t do that until you fix that.”
It started, Spieth said, with his vision. He found himself looking to the right when he stood over putts, leading to a surprisingly poor putting season in 2017-18. It worked its way through his bag and though Spieth was able to fix his putting (he ranked second on tour in strokes gained putting last season but is 80th this year) he struggled to solve the full swing issue.
Early on, Spieth’s attempt to remedy the problem made it worse, compounding the challenge.
Asked to explain in layman’s terms what went wrong, Spieth said, “I was dragging the club in with an open clubface which is a terrible place to be. I had 4 to 5 degrees of shaft lean. Look at (Jon) Rahm or Rory (McIlroy) or guys who drive it well and they have 1 degree either way. It’s been hard to fix for me.”
Spieth said he did not go searching for extra distance when he was at the top of the world, a suggestion made recently by David Duval on television.
“I never have,” Spieth said. “If anything I’ve done the opposite. I’ve gone up in speed every year but nothing I did to try and do so.
“I’ve told Cameron many times … he says, ‘Hey, your speeds are up.’ I say, ‘I don’t care.’ I would literally drop 5 mph ball speed to hit 10 percent more fairways.”
While the swing is built on mechanics and feel, playing the game is built on trust and confidence. Fixing the first two doesn’t automatically fix the second pair. That’s why Spieth hit more drivers than he might have at snug Sedgefield, pushing himself to trust what he’s doing. He ranked 71st of 77 in strokes gained off the tee last week.
“The next step is being in contention and trusting the shots,” he said. “I’m just taking it step by step. I have nothing holding me back from being patient.
“I kind of went through a stage of being impatient and getting frustrated. I’m trying to do a really good job of settling in and knowing things turn around if you let them turn around rather than forcing them to turn around.”
Before the PGA Championship, Spieth said he felt like the game is testing him. Good bounces have become bad bounces. He feels like he’s absorbing punches rather than delivering them.
Spieth played the first two days at the Wyndham with Brooks Koepka and Justin Rose, neither of whom made the cut as they each cope with their own struggles. The hole, Spieth said, needs to look bigger when he’s putting. But that won’t happen until he sees a couple fall in.
On Friday afternoon, Spieth had made five birdies in an eight-hole stretch and was inside the cutline until he pulled his tee shot out of bounds left at the tough par-4 14th hole, leading to a double bogey that put him outside the cutline. That kind of big mistake has haunted him.
Knowing he needed to play the last four holes 1-under par to make the weekend, Spieth did it, another brick in the wall he’s rebuilding.
“The trust factor is so hard in tournaments,” he said. “For me, it’s all about playing more. The extra rounds are so important. Sometimes Fridays feel like trying to win a major because I’m trying to make the cut so I can play more.
“I want more out of it. Trust me I want to be … I have as much drive as I’ve ever had. I work harder than I ever have. It’s not any kind of laziness.
“It’s just a test right now. I feel like it’s been a test for too long.”