- Jordan Spieth hasn't won a single tournament since the British Open last year. But a win at Bellerive would make 2018 a year for the history books.
ST. LOUIS—Jordan Spieth has felt this way before, been asked some version of these questions. It started a year ago at Quail Hollow in Charlotte, when he was not quite two weeks removed from his win at Royal Birkdale. He’d just turned 24, and he was, five years after turning pro, on the precipice of the career Grand Slam.
Spieth won the Masters in 2015 then the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay two months later. He went without a major victory in 2016 before adding the British Open to his resume in remarkable fashion last year, playing his last five holes in five under after a miraculous bogey that included a penalty drop near the driving range. During the crowded back end of last season, fans didn’t have to wait long to wonder: Could Spieth do what he’d done two years earlier—win back-to-back majors—and complete the career Slam?
Spieth finished tied for 28th at the 2017 PGA Championship, and he hasn’t won an event since. In the span of a year, he’s lived on the brink of golf’s greatest accomplishment—and you can see how this season could have been one long waiting game for this final major. You can see, but Spieth says that’s not the case.
Still, 2018 has only featured glimpses of the golfer who threatened to supplant Tiger Woods by a matter of months as the youngest Grand Slam winner ever had he done it last year. (Woods was five months from his 25th birthday when he won his; Jack Nicklaus was 26, Ben Hogan 40, Gary Player 29, Gene Sarazen 33. And that’s it. No one else has done it.) Spieth’s spring was mediocre until he tied for third place at the Houston Open in April and finished solo third at the Masters the next week.
Since then, it’s been a mixed bag of mediocrity and disappointment for the world’s No. 8 player, the lowest he's been ranked since March 2015; Spieth has missed three cuts since Augusta, and he played himself out of contention at Carnoustie on the final day of this year’s British Open, eventually finishing ninth after a birdieless 76 on Sunday. Last week at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, he finished tied for 60th in a field of just 72. “I understand this year's been kind of a building year for me,” Spieth, still just 25, said Tuesday, “and I've been working back towards the level that I like to be at, and it's getting close and certainly starting to see some results from it, through the Open Championship.”
What Spieth has done thus far in his career has been nothing short of historic—and that explains why he’s still considered one of the favorites to win this week despite inconsistent play all year. In the modern era, just five golfers have won a career Grand Slam, and only another 12, including Spieth have won three of the four major tournaments. A year ago, going into the PGA, Spieth was being talked about in the same breath as Woods, who got his Slam at 24 by winning the U.S. Open and then the British Open in a span of five weeks. “I only had to think about it for about a month,” Woods said Tuesday of his quest for all four. “I really wasn’t asked a whole lot about what it would be like to complete the career Grand Slam at St. Andrew’s. I had to deal with it for basically a month, or in particular, that week. It was a very special time.”
And it was probably special for Spieth, too—a year ago. Now, it has to be exhausting, this waiting, waiting, waiting for a win, for this win, for either, at this point. It will remain exhausting, most likely, until he wins a PGA or retires. Rory McIlroy has been on a similar brink for four years (he needs a green jacket to complete his Slam), Phil Mickelson for five (the U.S. Open has always eluded him). Mickelson even went five years after his last major, at the 2013 British, without another tour win, until winning the WGC-Mexico Championship in March. These droughts happen—but rarely for a player so young and promising and accomplished as Spieth. And that’s the rub: for anyone else, probably, we wouldn’t even call this a drought.
But Spieth has been nothing if not consistent, at least before this year. He got his first PGA Tour win in 2013, won five events in 2015, two in 2016, three more in 2017. Going into the PGA, his 2018 outlook is a tale of extremes: Win this week, and become the sixth player to notch the career Slam; lose, and be a step closer to going winless this year.
Spieth explained Tuesday that he feels like he’s less of a focus going into the tournament this year. In 2017, he was anxious. “It was fresh,” he said of the Grand Slam chatter. “I was in form, and going into a place that, if I worked up the leaderboard, it would create a lot of noise. I feel somewhat under-the-radar this year. I’ve kind of felt that way a lot this year. I don’t mind it.”
“This tournament will always be circled until I’m able to hopefully win it someday. It will always be circled to complete the career Grand Slam, which will ultimately achieve a lifelong goal for me. So certainly (there’s an) emphasis in my head on it, but nothing overpowering, nothing that takes over once I start on the first tee, just more going into the week.”
Spieth’s slow year shouldn’t be taken as anything but that: a dip, a blip, a short stumble. And his disappointing finish last weekend might have provided a hidden advantage at Bellerive; after an early tee time Sunday, he was able to get to St. Louis with a bit of extra rest and time to spare. Instead of playing his planned nine holes Monday, he got in 18 in the 95-plus-degree heat on a course he’s largely unfamiliar with. Then, when intermittent heavy rain shortened most golfers’ days on Tuesday, he was a step ahead.
It’s easy to look at Spieth’s weekend at Carnoustie last month and see only inconsistency. He led the field through 54 holes before shooting five over on Sunday, spectacularly botching his chance at a repeat win. But for all the horror that was his final round, it’s important to consider his first three on one of golf’s biggest stages, when he played good and then better and then downright great. For three days, Spieth looked like one of the world’s best golfers—because he still is.
“Getting in the winner's circle when it's been over a year is something that I obviously would like to do,” Spieth said of this weekend’s tournament. “If it happens or doesn't happen through the rest of this calendar year, I'm working in the right direction, I'm doing the right things, and again you get yourself in position enough, the bounces will go your way.”