Last Thursday afternoon in San Francisco three men were out alone on the range at TPC Harding Park: Jordan Spieth, his caddie, Michael Greller, and his coach, Cameron McCormick. Spieth had finished his opening round of the US PGA Championship three-and-a-half hours earlier. He’d shot 73, three-over, and was eight-off the lead, tied 109th. Now he was sitting cross-legged, his arms draped over his knees, staring into the middle distance like the answers he was looking for were hiding somewhere down there at the far end of the range.
Earlier that day, the PGA Tour posted a short clip of Spieth talking about the one thing he’d like to be able to tell his younger self. “Let me think about this question for a second,” he says in the video, “the one thing about golf that I wish I knew then that I know now.” There’s a long pause, and then he comes up with his answer. “Honestly,” he said, laughing, “I wish I played with the mentality I had back then.”
Right now Spieth’s in the thick of one of the game’s most godawful slumps. “Back then” he was on one of its great hot streaks. His wire-to-wire win at the 2015 Masters, when he was just 21, is still one of the finest sporting achievements I’ve covered live. If he’d just made a last eight-foot putt on the 18th he would have beaten Tiger Woods’s record for the lowest score in Masters history. Afterwards he gave a 15-minute monologue in which he laid out, in meticulous detail, the thinking behind every decision he made, and every shot he’d played during the final round.
All that whirring and ticking, it was like opening up the back of a watch to look at the array of cogs. I’ve been a fan of his ever since. Two months later he won the US Open too, the youngest to do it since Bobby Jones in 1923. He was playing so well that, Larry David joked, his biggest worry was his hairline. “He’s going to be wildly bald,” David said. “This makes him way more appealing to me. It’s one thing to handle the pressure of the back nine at Augusta; let’s see how he does when he sees all that hair in the tub. That’s pressure.”
At Augusta the next year, Spieth didn’t handle that back nine pressure too well and he blew up coming around Amen Corner. It only made him more likeable. The game wasn’t that easy after all, it was just that he’d been playing so well he’d made it look that way.
You could see, then, that there was a wild streak in Spieth, something underneath a little unhinged and rickety which he was only just about in control of. It came out again during his victory at the Open in 2017 at Royal Birkdale, maybe the definitive Spieth moment. A wayward drive on the 13th left him an unplayable lie, and he spent 21 minutes stalking around that corner trying to figure how to get out of it, till he ended up playing from back off the practice range. He dropped a shot, but still won by three. It made him the second player in history to win three majors before he turned 24.
But he hasn’t won anything since. Not one single tournament. Last week, Spieth was asked how he’d have felt in 2017 if someone had told him he wouldn’t win anything for the next three years. “Yeah, I mean, I probably – if you told me that, I’d probably say that guy is kind of a jerk and I’d walk the other way. But here we are.” Maybe his early form meant we all expected too much of him, or maybe it’s just that the game is pitilessly tough, that every year along come another clutch of young contenders to beat.
Right now Spieth is 60th in the world rankings. Which is some drop. He’s had his moments, finished tied third at the US PGA just last year, and third at the Masters the year before that. But still, two of the top four questions people also ask about him on Google are: “Is Jordan Spieth ill?”, and “Has Jordan Spieth retired?” No. He’s still out there, grinding away, trying to figure out how to get it back, telling himself that if he just keeps at it, it will all come together again. And maybe it will. Despite a third-round 76 at TPC Harding Park to go with that opening 73, he also shot a 67 and a 68.
In the meantime, the more he struggles, the more relatable he is. On Saturday he tugged his approach on the 14th to the far wide left of the green. “Aw God!” he said, as he stood there staring at the ground, one hand in his pocket, other propped on his club, utterly perplexed, just like any of the everyday rest of us. Spieth doesn’t really seem to have a clue what’s wrong with his game, whether it’s mental or technical. He’s just out there muttering to his ball, wrestling with the mysteries of it all.
The more complicated the mechanism, the harder it is to fix. Spieth says his problem is that he’s overthinking it. He’s not short of advice, there’s more of it out there than might be good for him. It is to his credit that he has stuck with his caddie and coach, when plenty of other players might have fired one or the other, or both. You just hope that between them they can figure it out. And fast. Lee Trevino said that the reason he took so little time over his putts was because if he was going to miss, he wanted it over quick. Spieth’s had three years of this.