Why leader Jordan Spieth will be so tough to catch in final round of Northern Trust

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Why leader Jordan Spieth will be so tough to catch in final round of Northern Trust

PGA Tour

Why leader Jordan Spieth will be so tough to catch in final round of Northern Trust

OLD WESTBURY, N.Y. – Prizefighters are supposed to be evenly matched, which means they should be similar in weight and stature. For example, Floyd Mayweather tipped the scales at 149.5 pounds on Friday heading into his fight with Conor McGregor, who weighed 153, and they look nearly eye-to-eye.

Stand Jordan Spieth next to Dustin Johnson, who at 6-foot-4 is widely considered one of the best athletes on the PGA Tour, or Jon Rahm, who at 225 pounds looks like a Spanish Rocky Marciano in soft spikes, and you might think they would leave Spieth groaning on the canvas. 

But there he is, standing 6-foot-1 with a boyish grin and listed in the PGA Tour media guide at 185 pounds (a middleweight), this 24-year-old Texan who has been wielding his putter around the Glen Oaks Club as if it was a magic wand in the hands of Harry Potter. 

Twenty-one feet for birdie on five, got it. A 12-footer for birdie on seven and a 23-foot putt for birdie on eight, no problem. That 22-foot birdie putt on 15? Drain-o. 

The only guy who has been as accurate from long range this week is the Night King in Game of Thrones.

Spieth shot 6-under 64 on Saturday in the third round of the Northern Trust and will take a three-shot lead over Johnson into the final 18 holes. On a course where bombers like Johnson, who shot 67, were supposed to have a distinct advantage, Spieth, who came into the Northern Trust Open ranked 81st in driving distance, is showing that his game can win here too. 

“I’ve been striking the ball really well this week,” Spieth said. “The first day I probably hit it the best of any of them but just didn’t make anything, then the putter started to heat up during the second half of (Friday’s) round and I kind of just created my own confidence off of a couple putts (Friday). That has led into the last 27 holes or so being some of the best golf that I played.” 

Holing a slew of 20-footers has put Spieth’s putting in the spotlight, but the 2017 British Open winner has been one of the best iron players in the world this season. In fact, he has made the biggest improvement in strokes gained: approach the green of any player on the PGA Tour. Last season his average was .145, but he showed up at the Northern Trust with an average of .968, which ranks second-best on tour. That means over 72 holes, Spieth is getting a 3.87-shot advantage over the average tour player based on his iron play and shots from the fairway. Mix that with his penchant for making long and crucial putts, and it’s no wonder his name is at the top of the leaderboard. 

“Driving the ball is going to continue to be something that I’d like to improve on,” he said. “Look at the top-20 players in the world, and most of them are ahead of me in driving statistics. But ballstriking-wise, it was a tremendous improvement this year, and that frees you up off the tee to not feel like you have to do too much.” 

There are a host of contenders who, out of desperation, are going to try to throw haymakers at Spieth on Sunday. Rahm, who shot 67 Saturday, is at -7, tied with Paul Casey (66), Patrick Reed (66) and Matt Kuchar (68). But Spieth has a plan and intends to rely on his experience as a frontrunner to hold them off.

“If I can shoot a couple under on the front nine, I think it will be a difficult nine for somebody to go 4- or 5-under on, no matter how hot they are,” Spieth said. “Then you get to a bunch of wedge holes, and you can start really controlling your score from there.” 

Spieth is sitting on his 15th 54-hole lead, and he has won nine of the last 10 times that he has been in this position. When the bell rings at 1:50 p.m. Eastern time Sunday to signal his tee time with Dustin Johnson, you get the feeling he’ll be tough to knock out.

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