AUGUSTA, Ga. — Brooks Koepka is on one of those major championship runs that only happens once in the lifetimes of a select few. Jordan Spieth was one of those, once.
The two were paired together on Thursday and Friday here, Koepka in control of his game,Spieth fumbling around for his. This moment seemed to say something: After Koepka hit his second shot into the par-5 No. 8 he told caddie Ricky Elliott, “That’s all over it.” He didn’t know for sure, though, until Spieth, walked up to the green, turned and gave him the thumbs-up. Then Spieth went back to his ball, which had gone from one place he didn’t want it to be another place he didn’t want it to be, and he hit it to a third place he didn’t want it to be. He was annoyed.
This was a snapshot, that’s all: a moment in time. But it says something about where Koepka and Spieth find themselves today.
Spieth played with Brooks Koepka. They have played here together before. In 2015, they played a Tuesday practice round, and as they walked off the 13th tee, they looked over at James Hahn hitting his tee shot on No. 12. Spieth turned to Koepka and said, “This is going to be a hole-in-one.” He was correct.
Five days later, Spieth was a phenomenon, the runaway Masters winner. Koepka was just a guy who finished tied for 33rd, 18 strokes behind Spieth, telling reporters, “He's the golden child."
Here they are, four years later. Now Spieth is No. 33 in the world. Koepka is No. 4 in the rankings, and a lot of people would say he is the best golfer in the world. Koepka has won three majors, same as Spieth. And he's won two of the last three.
Spieth has not won since the 2017 British Open. He has struggled, at various times, with his driving, his iron play, and his putting, though it is worth noting he remains stellar at keeping his fly zipped for 18 holes. It’s a testament to Spieth’s head that he has not completely fallen apart. A lesser golfer would have taken up tennis by now.
We keep saying Augusta National brings out the best in Spieth, and Spieth keeps saying it doesn’t. He brings the best out of himself here. There is a difference. But as he stood on the first green Friday, desperately trying to save a bogey that would drop him to four-over par, he wasn’t thinking about a second green jacket. He was just hoping to finish the second round within 10 strokes of the lead or in the top 60, including ties, so he could make the cut.
Spieth righted himself, somehow. He shot 68. And toward the end of the round he turned to caddie Michael Greller and asked about the cut.
“I’m like, it’s 10 off the lead and 60, right?” Spieth said afterward. “He goes, ‘No, it’s 50.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, good thing I didn’t know that.”
He laughed. Spieth looks like he is headed for oblivion until you remember who he is, and he seems like a mess until you talk to him. He has maintained his confidence throughout his two-year slump. He says he is close. You can say he is in denial. But he did not get this far by expecting to suck.
Spieth believes in Spieth even when the rest of us don’t.
You know who understands? Brooks Koepka.
In 2015, Spieth was so young (21) and so good (he followed up his Masters win by taking the U.S. Open and nearly winning the British) that golf fans could use the T-word (Tiger) without sounding silly. Nike chairman Phil Knight walked the Augusta National grounds as Spieth blew away the field, and there was a sense that Knight might have made the wrong bet on the next great golfer. Knight had poured millions into Rory McIlroy. Spieth-mania had taken over, and Under Armour was cashing in on it. Now Koepka is one of the most recognizable golfers in the world, and he is dressed from head to golf bag in the Swoosh. Koepka saw this coming when nobody else could.
Koepka may win this Masters, but he won’t win it the way he won his previous three majors, especially last year’s PGA: by hitting bombs into the fairway, short irons into the greens, methodically destroying the course. At the Masters, even the winners must bleed.
Koepka found that out when he hit his tee shot on No. 2 way left. Later, this classically spare Koepka exchange occurred in the interview room at the Augusta National Media Resort & Spa:
REPORTER: Jack Nicklaus was famous for saying one of the don’t-go places here was left (on) 2. What is down there?
KOEPKA: There’s a creek.
Koepka made seven on the hole. But he still shot a one-under 71 to finish at seven–under par and hold a five-way share of the lead heading into Saturday. Spieth is six strokes back. Listen through the dogwoods and the pines here, and you can hear people wonder if Koepka is really this dominant, really ready to win his third major in four tries. He has famously used doubts as fuel, but what matters is not that we have doubts; it’s that he does not. And neither, even now, does Jordan Spieth.