AUGUSTA, Ga. – Even at his peak – a time closer in the rearview mirror than his recent scores might suggest – Jordan Spieth was never smooth.
He doesn’t have DJ’s lazy amble or Tiger’s aloof chill. His pre-shot routine has always been an assortment of twitches set to a soundtrack of debate with his caddie. Post-shot it’s often a maelstrom of pleading with his still-airborne ball or exasperation at its fate.
Those fidgety traits have only been heightened this season as Spieth surfs the most turbulent wave of his young career. He hasn’t won in almost two years and in 10 stroke-play events on the PGA Tour his best finish has been T-30. Thursday’s first round at Augusta National didn’t augur a positive change when Spieth carded a dismal 75 that matched his career-worst round at the Masters.
When he opened his second round with a bogey, falling to plus-four for the tournament, Spieth admitted his mind began to drift in a direction it had never gone before — thinking about where the cut would fall. His caddie, Michael Greller, had to tell his boss that the low 50 guys and ties, plus anyone within 10 strokes of the lead play the weekend. Spieth didn’t know about the cut because, as he succinctly put it, “I’ve never been anywhere near it.”
It’s a particular cruelty of golf that a great player’s struggles are cast in stark relief because they invariably happen on the very stages that once showcased his brilliance, and there is no venue where Spieth has been more brilliant than at Augusta National. In five starts at the Masters, he has only once finished outside the top three, and even that was a respectable tie for 11th. If Thursday suggested the gaunt state of Spieth’s game now, Friday was a robust reminder of what he was and is capable of.
After that opening bogey, the 2015 Masters champion reeled off five birdies to post a 68 that not only put him safely inside the cut line but also within reasonable striking distance of the leaders, six strokes back with 36 holes to go.
“My pars were more stress-free and I was able to have a lot more looks at birdie,” Spieth said. “Overall, my putting performance still hasn’t been quite as good as it’s been in previous weeks, but I know how the hole can look kind of big out here sometimes and hoping for that on the weekend.”
To do that, he will have to reverse a worrisome season-long trend that suggests Spieth is not the same player on weekends that he is on weekdays. His scoring averages are impressive for both Thursday (16th on Tour) and Friday (14th), but he doesn’t crack the top 200 on either Saturday or Sunday. He knows a solid Saturday is essential to having hope for Sunday.
“I mean as far as this tournament, I’m six back,” he said after signing his card. “If I can somehow cut it to three by Sunday, then I feel like I have a legitimate chance.”
He almost won a second green jacket a year ago when he began the final round nine shots behind Patrick Reed. But the Spieth we saw shoot a sublime 64 that day has been AWOL since.
This season he ranks 203rd in Strokes Gained Off the Tee. In Driving Accuracy, he’s 212th. There are only two players on Tour more crooked off the tee. The misses aren’t only frequent, they’re big: he is T-152nd in distance from the edge of the fairway. And predictably for a man who plays from the outer precincts of a hole, he ranks T-175 in Greens in Regulation.
His putter, which once seemed like Excalibur, has become less reliable, and a downright liability on shorter putts. He’s T-172 in three-putt avoidance. The PGA Tour’s ShotLink system measures a player’s performance from every distance. On four- and five-footers — the kind of comebackers often faced by players at Augusta National — he is 174th and 206th on Tour, respectively.
Those are not numbers that typically unlock the code to Augusta National.
“It’s hard to see a great player struggle. It just goes to show you the game is hard,” said Claude Harmon III, who coaches Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka. “He can’t work any harder than he works and he can’t try any harder than he tries. Sometimes golf is tough.”
Spieth has cut a forlorn figure on the golf course for the best part of a year, a man so obviously consumed with technical swing thoughts and just as clearly bereft of confidence. But majors are geared more for bravado than beating oneself up and Spieth has been trying hard to maintain a positive outlook, even if it’s grounded more in wishful thinking than empirical evidence.
“My expectations are high this week,” he said earlier in the week. “I feel great about the state of my game right now.”
Friday provided some support for his optimism. Now, about those weekends. …