AUGUSTA, Ga. — Jordan Spieth doesn’t often watch highlights of old tournaments, but he indulged himself on Monday night before Virginia and Texas Tech faced off in the NCAA tournament title game. His father asked if he wanted to switch from pregame coverage to Golf Channel’s re-airing of the 2015 Masters. That, of course, is when he won by four and tied the tournament scoring record, then followed that up by winning the very next major, the U.S. Open … all before his 22nd birthday. They flipped to the broadcast and left it on in the background, Jordan’s coronation serving as white noise while the Spieth boys played cards.
The younger Spieth remembers virtually every shot from that day—“the highest of highs I’ve had in the sport”—but even half-watching the broadcast jolted his memory as to just how transcendent that performance was.
“The funniest thing about watching it was seeing how many putts were holed by Phil, or someone holing a bunker shot, or Tiger gave a big fist pump on one hole. It was just funny listening to, ‘he makes a big putt and gets to six back! I’m like, wow. I was way up there. I’m really tearing that place up.”
He was, in the truest sense, alone at the top.
Things are a bit different now.
Four years later, Spieth, now a grizzled veteran at 25, comes back to his favorite tournament in the world, the site of his greatest triumph—but also his toughest-ever three minutes on a golf course, when he hit two balls in the water on 12 to throw away the 2016 tournament—as the world No. 33 player. There are 16 Americans ranked higher. Rafa Cabrera Bello and Cameron Smith and Gary Woodland and Patrick Cantlay are ranked higher than the (at least at one point) heir apparent to Tiger Woods.
The world rankings don’t care what your name is or what your golf resume includes. It’s an algorithm, and Spieth’s submissions to said algorithm have bordered on shocking. He has no top-10 finishes since last year’s British Open, 15 events ago. He has not won a tournament since July 2017. He has yet to put together an under-par weekend all season. He is 109th in scoring average, 148th in strokes gained overall and 170th in the FedEx Cup standings.
For what it’s worth, he’s not deterred.
“I feel great about the state of my game right now,” Spieth said with earnest conviction. “I feel like my recent results aren’t a tell of where my game is actually at, and I feel I’ve made a lot of strides in the last couple days.”
Coming from someone who has accomplished what Spieth has, those words mean something. But there has been little on-course evidence to suggest his game is healthy enough to hold up for 72 major championship holes. Yet Vegas still lists him among the top five favorites to win this tournament, ahead of both Brooks Koepka and Francesco Molinari, who have combined to win the last three majors. That’s the type of faith the golf world has in Jordan Spieth at Augusta National.
The belief isn’t unfounded. Not even close. Since he made his debut here in 2014—when he nearly won the tournament despite not being old enough to enjoy the celebratory champagne that would’ve come with it—no one has navigated this fickle beast of a golf course quite like Spieth has. His worst finish here is a tie for 11th. He has a victory, two second-place finishes and a third, which came last year via a final-round 64. He has the best scoring average (70.05) of any player with at least 20 rounds at Augusta National. (Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are second and third, respectively). He is 39 under par over the last five Masters, a full 12 shots better than the second-best over that span, Justin Rose. Perhaps most impressively, he has held at least a share of the lead after nine of the 20 rounds he’s played at this tournament.
“It’s frustrating to watch from this side, everything that’s being said and written about him, because I know he’s close,” said Justin Thomas, one of Spieth’s closest friends since childhood. “He’s going to play well this week. I really do think that.”
He is almost certainly going to play well, at least for one round. Spieth has shot at least one score in the 60s in each of his nine stroke play events this season. There’s even a good chance he starts well here on Thursday afternoon, when he’ll start his quest for major No. 4 alongside Koepka and Paul Casey—five of his nine opening rounds this campaign have been 68 or better, including two 66s, a 65 and a 64. The issue hasn’t been summoning low rounds; it’s been avoiding high ones. The question isn’t whether he’ll play well; it’s when and for how long.
An under-par outing on Thursday won’t do much to quell doubters. But if he follows it up with another low one Friday? Then the hype train will fire up its engines. He’d find himself in position to win a fourth major at 25, matching the pace set by one Jack Nicklaus, with two good rounds under his belt to boost confidence.
That confidence—in himself and the swing changes he’s been working on—might be all he needs. Keep in mind: Spieth hasn’t forgotten how to play this course, how to win tournaments, how to win the Masters. Not after that TV session with his old man on Monday night.