- Jordan Spieth's recent struggles on the golf course have been well-documented, but his play at Bethpage Black suggests he may be finally snapping out of his funk.
BETHPAGE, N.Y. — Jordan Spieth is near the top of the PGA Championship leaderboard after a second-round 66, which is funny, because on paper, Jordan Spieth shouldn’t be anywhere near the top of this leaderboard.
Broadly speaking: He hasn’t finished a tournament near the top of any leaderboard in 10 months. He has no top–20 finishes on the season. He hasn’t won anywhere in more than 660 days. He’s fallen to No. 39 in the world rankings, the lowest he’s been since November 2013.
From an X’s and O’s standpoint: He’s been one of the worst drivers of the ball on Tour this year—he ranks 205th in driving accuracy, 86th in driving distance and 202nd in strokes gained off the tee—and Bethpage Black is the last place you want to feel uncomfortable with the big stick. Long and straight is an asset on every golf course, but it’s an especially winning formula this week. A cool and damp New York spring has the Black playing close to 8,000 yards, but the fairways haven’t been widened accordingly and the rough is pitch-out length. It’s poetic that Brooks Koepka, who holds a double major in Power and Precision, is now the course-record holder.
It would be a mistake, though, to look at those statistics and conclude that Spieth has no chance. This is a different Jordan Spieth than we’ve seen in the past months—thanks to months of intense work with his instructor Cameron McCormick, he’s significantly more comfortable with his golf swing. He sits at five-under and was in solo second when he walked off the course Friday.
On No. 7, where an oceanic bunker guards the right side of the fairway, he was confident enough to aim at the trouble and rip a tight draw. Dead center. On No. 12, from 227 yards and into the wind, he summoned a towering 4-iron and tuck it to eight feet.
Those are both shots he couldn’t pull off just a few weeks ago.
“That had no business even being on the green earlier this year,” Spieth said. “Shots like that are nice because they allow me to start seeing tighter targets…It’s all just progress from the work off the course, or outside the tournament.”
But the biggest difference in Spieth’s game, the reason to believe he has a legitimate chance to complete the career Grand Slam this week, is on the greens. Simply put, he’s back to being one of the best putters in the world, and putting is the great equalizer. It allows a player who hit just nine greens to shoot 66 on what is maybe the hardest course in America. That’s exactly what Spieth did on Friday. He needed just 23 putts, totaling more than 140 feet, which is how he picked up almost four shots on the field with the flatstick.
“I think I’m probably 90% back to where I was at my best,” he said of his putting resurgence.
Later: “I feel as good or better 15 feet and in. I feel like I’m where I should be.”
Where he should be is also where he has been. This—being in contention heading into the weekend at a major—is the furthest thing from an unfamiliar spot for the three-time major winner. It’s also not the first time he’s put himself in position after two rounds this season. There was the AT&T Pebble Beach, where he opened with 66-68. At Riviera, he fired 64-70. In San Antonio, right before the Masters, he gave everyone hope with 68-68. And just last week, 68-67. In fact, Spieth ranks third on Tour in second-round scoring this year…and 193rd in third-round and 208th in fourth-round.
You may feel like you’ve seen this movie before, and the jaded part of you may think you know exactly how it will end: Spieth will tumble at some point this weekend and fall out of contention. The driver will betray him, and he won’t be able to compensate with the putter.
For what it’s worth, Spieth disagrees. During those previous fast starts, he was masking holes in his game. Something was off. It wasn’t sustainable. This, he says, is different.
“I don’t feel the same. I feel like the way I scored was actually the way that I played. Any time I was in a situation [recently] where it maybe looked like I was contending, it didn’t feel like it.”
Translation: I’m ready to win this golf tournament. Like, actually ready. The beauty of tournament golf is we won’t have to wait very long at all to find out whether he was right. But the first step toward greatness is belief, and for the first time in a long time, Jordan Spieth has that.