Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 6, 2020

Jordan Spieth’s Days In The Golfing Desert

While most sports fans, including millions who wore the title just for the day, spent last Sunday in front of flatscreens for hours, fixated by pontificating pundits, exorbitantly priced commercials, and J Lo proving that fifty is the new twenty, all sandwiched around roughly fifteen minutes of actual football plays, golf lovers managed to break away for at least a little while to take in the final round of the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Dating to the 1930s, Phoenix is one of the oldest stops on the PGA Tour, though it’s likely that Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, along with the many other pros on the list of winners through the tournament’s first decades would scarcely recognize the event as it is today.

Since moving from Phoenix Country Club to the Stadium Course at TPC Scottsdale in 1987, the Phoenix Open has become the most spectator friendly event on golf’s calendar. Fans line up in the middle of the night and literally storm the course as soon as the gates open, with more than 200,000 cramming the grounds on Saturday for the past several years. The final three holes of the TPC layout – the par-3 16th, the drivable par-4 17th, and the uphill par-4 18th – are virtually enclosed by multilevel stands that are filled to overflowing with throngs who grow increasingly boisterous as the hours pass and the alcohol flows. It’s the perfect golf tournament for Super Bowl weekend, because just like the big game, it’s at least as much carnival sideshow as sporting event.

This year, those in attendance on Sunday who stayed for the conclusion of the final round had no chance of making it home in time to see the opening kickoff by the 49ers on the other side of the country. That’s because Webb Simpson finished regulation play with back-to-back birdies to erase a two-shot deficit and tie Tony Finau, forcing a sudden death playoff on the 18th that Simpson won by sinking a carbon copy of the birdie putt he had holed twenty minutes earlier.

But one golfer who presumably had no problem watching all of the Super Bowl was Jordan Spieth. The three-time major champion, who has spent a total of twenty-six weeks atop the Official World Golf Rankings, had an open weekend after missing Friday’s cut at Phoenix by two strokes following rounds of 74 and 69. By itself the dreaded MC, as it’s designated in the parlance of the PGA Tour, could be considered a minor hiccup – the result of a couple days when all the myriad elements of a top professional golfer’s game didn’t quite gel, leaving behind some disappointed fans who had hoped to watch the popular Spieth in action during the weekend.

In Spieth’s case though, the missed cut and the indifferent play that led to it can’t be viewed in isolation. Rather the free weekend in the Arizona desert was the continuation of a run of poor results that has seen the 26-year-old superstar go winless for more than thirty months, since four straight rounds in the 60s nabbed him the 2017 Open Championship at Royal Birkdale, a victory that brought him within a PGA Championship of the career Grand Slam.

The decline was not immediate. After besting Matt Kuchar at the Open, Spieth closed the 2017 season with top-ten finishes, including a pair of seconds, at all four FedEx Cup playoff events. But it was a measure of just how much success Spieth, still half a year shy of his 25th birthday, had achieved in a very short time that the end of that year left many of his fans disappointed. All too soon, those results instead took on the patina of fond memories. He was winless in 2018 and again last year, and while he showed flashes of the brilliant play that had so quickly taken him to the top of the sport, Spieth seemed to consistently throw one clunker of a round into every tournament, turning a potential big payday into one more long slog. That pattern only deepened last year, as Spieth’s victory drought grew twelve months longer.

In a game of bombers, Spieth is almost a throwback, which probably only adds to his appeal to weekend amateur players. His season-long driving average has never reached 300 yards, leaving him usually ranked somewhere between 75th and 100th on the Tour. His strength has always been is accuracy with his approach shots, brilliant touch around the green, and, especially during his magical 2015 run, a seemingly preternatural ability to put the ball in the hole with the flat stick. His Open win is best remembered for how he saved bogey after a badly wayward drive on the par-4 13th hole into an unplayable lie. After taking his penalty drop Spieth scorched a 3-iron approach from Royal Birkdale’s practice range, reminding fans of the birdie Seve Ballesteros conjured from a parking lot at Royal Lytham while winning in 1979. But it was a 35-foot eagle putt two holes later, followed by birdie rolls at the 16th and 17th that made the difference in his three-shot victory.

Spieth’s magic touch with the putter deserted him in 2018, when he sunk to 123rd on Tour in the overall statistic of Strokes Gained – Putting. In the limited statistics of the young 2020 season, he’s even worse, and when he has shown his old ability on the greens, as he did in 2019, other parts of Spieth’s game have gone sideways.

That was the case at the Phoenix Open, where he began his opening round on Thursday by hooking his drive deep into the desert. By the time he signed for a 3-over-par 74, Spieth was 99th in the field in Strokes Gained – Tee to Green, and 114th in the putting stat. Friday’s modest improvement wasn’t nearly enough to threaten the cut line. This week at Pebble Beach he sits in a tie for 44th after one round, which would at least be good enough to play the weekend if it holds through Friday’s second circuit, though his fans are likely holding their breath waiting for the seemingly obligatory bad round.

Perhaps years from now Spieth’s career will be reminiscent of a shooting star, lighting up the sky for a time only to burn itself out and disappear. But as every weekend player knows, golf is a fickle game. Some days every shot is straight and true, and every putt has eyes only for the hole. At other times each club feels like a lead weight and the ball has an evil mind of its own. But come the last week of next July Spieth will be all of 27 years old. He had three major championships on his resume while younger than Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer or Tom Watson were when they each won their first. The betting here is that there are plenty more victories in Jordan Spieth’s golf bag, and that right now he is a young athlete learning the hardest lesson taught by all our games – that in sports, as in life, lasting success is never certain and seldom easy.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Categories

%d bloggers like this: