- Jordan Spieth will once again assert himself as the world's best golfer. But as his opening-round 72 showed, his game just isn't ready for that quite yet.
CARNOUSTIE, Scotland — Jordan Spieth is here defending his British Open championship this week, but he's also defending himself against the thorny realities of this sport. Spieth has been so good in his career—three major championships already, and he is still only 24 years old—that when you watch him struggle, it’s easy to assume he will snap out of it. The last year reminded him how hard that is. The last four holes Thursday rudely reminded him once again.
His road from three under par to a one-over 72 started on 15, with what the ever-candid Spieth later called “a really, really poor decision on my part.” He should have hit a 5-iron safely onto the green. Instead, he tried to muscle a 6-iron closer to the pin, and his ball ended up plugged in a pot bunker, forcing Spieth to hit one of those sideways British Open specials that ought to come with a glass of whiskey.
“That’s what I consider a significant advantage for me, is recognizing where the misses are,” he said later, “ and I just had a brain fart.”
The fart resulted in a two-stroke penalty, as all farts should, when you think about it. Anyway, he made double bogey. He went from three-under to one-under. Then he bogeyed the 16th. Spieth was starting to look less like the Spieth who won last year’s British and more like the Spieth who hasn’t won since. When Spieth hits a lousy shot or a putt off line, he often starts walking right away, an annoyed look on his face, like if the damn ball is going to end up in the wrong place, it might as well hurry up and get there already. He started doing a lot of that.
When he arrived at the 17th tee, Spieth needed the three qualities that have made him one of his generation’s most successful athletes: Intelligent decision-making, mental toughness, and the ability to make the golf ball do what he wants.
Decision-making came first. Spieth had hit his driver well all day, and playing partners Justin Rose and Kiredech Aphibarnrat both hit driver at 17. Spieth was not tempted. He would hit iron. The question was which one.
“What do I hit?” he asked caddie Michael Greller.
“Four-iron,” Greller said.
“It’s definitely not a 4-iron,” Spieth said. “I’m trying 5 or 6.”
He grabbed one of those two, teed up, confirmed with Greller (“Is it OK? You sure? Is it good?”) and hit it pure. He twirled his club. A 4-iron probably would have ended up in the burn.
Spieth showed the mental toughness next—after hitting his approach long, he hit a gorgeous chip to give himself a short par putt, which he made.
It was the swing that betrayed him. On 18, Spieth hit his drive well right into the burn, had to take a drop and made bogey.
“Those misses toward the end were the exact misses that I’ve been having,” Spieth said. “My swing just didn’t hold up until the end of the round.”
The last 12 months have been the worst of Spieth’s career, but also a reminder of what a career he is having. Golf provides no cover; there is no offensive line to help the quarterback buy time and no shot-blocking center to clean up a teammate’s defensive mistake. When players struggle, they really struggle, except for the best of the best. Spieth is one of those.
Spieth has refined his swing and struggled terribly with his putting this year, yet he has not fallen off completely. He is only slumping by his standards. At some point, he will be the best player in the world again—and probably be even better, and more consistent, than he was three years ago, when he won the first two majors of the year as a 21-year-old and asserted himself as golf’s biggest star.
We are not going to look up in five years and wonder what happened to Jordan Spieth. But we will probably not look up Sunday and see him holding the Claret Jug again. He still thinks he can win this, as he should—golfers are supposed to believe, and the math can work for him. He is not out of it. And yet … well, it’s hard to believe this version of Spieth can pull off more magic this weekend. He has struggled in too many ways lately. Even his hot start Thursday was a bit misleading. He barely missed landing in a pot bunker on the first hole and got a fortunate kick on the second.
He is, as always, honest with himself, and with us: “I was three under and I kind of felt like I had stolen a couple there. I just have to play better golf. It’s that simple. I can’t reply on some of the breaks I got early in the round.”
The better golf will come. Amazingly, the bad golf has still been quite good.