Jordan Spieth knows he’s lost, but he doesn’t know what to do about it
MAMARONECK, N.Y. — I’m becoming increasingly convinced that if I were Jordan Spieth, I would have very little interest in talking to someone like myself. But when Jordan Spieth does talk, man is it interesting.
Spieth opened his U.S. Open with a three-over 73. He lost a ball in a tree. (Or the rough? Who can say!) He battled his swing all day, which should come as no surprise, because he appeared to be battling his swing on the driving range on Wednesday, too, and at last week’s Safeway Open, and generally at most golf tournaments over the past two to four years.
Over that time period, Spieth has had plenty of success, too, but nowhere near the success we’d grown accustomed to from the Golden Child, the World No. 1, the Grand Slam threatener. We’ve continued to root for him to regain some of that youthful superstardom, because he’s immensely talented and he tries very hard and because he seems like a very nice guy. The rooting and the attention has not necessarily helped.
Let’s talk through the experience of watching Jordan Spieth play golf these days. It looks hard. You can see the work. He talks through the process of a shot, to himself and to his caddie, Michael Greller, and then he talks to his ball while it’s in the air, and then he talks to himself again after the shot. He’s pushing. Birdies coming in bunches, and double bogeys lurk around every corner. On Thursday, he bogeyed No. 1, made a lost-ball double at No. 2, then reeled off three birdies in a row — and none of it felt even remotely surprising, neither to us nor to Spieth.
“I’ve had just about everything happen to me in the game of golf. So it’s not very hard for me to reset after two holes of a 72-hole tournament,” he said.
Everybody has an opinion about how to “fix” Jordan Spieth. Brandel Chamblee, David Duval, Gary Player, your golf buddy, your co-worker, the dude who just handed him another fresh bucket of range balls. If you read Instagram comments, which you never should, you’ll learn that Spieth should fire his coach, and his caddie, and change his swing. The thing about Instagram comments is that you can pretty much write any words you want in that little box and they’ll show up, right or wrong. The only dude who may not be exactly clear how to fix Jordan Spieth is, in fact, Jordan Spieth.
“There’s a lot that’s off. I’m not really sure. If I knew, I’d fix it,” he said.
If you watch Spieth hit balls on a driving range, you will end up searching for a fix theory of your own, because hitting balls like Spieth does not look like a comfortable experience. He looks at his target, shuffles his feet, looks at his target, shuffles his feet, target, feet, target, feet, perhaps 30 seconds’ worth before he can press send on a meaningless practice shot. That’s the most common Spieth fix to us outsiders: Some version of, “Just hit it!”
So that’s watching Spieth. Let’s talk about listening to him. The most interesting, revealing thing that Spieth said after his round was basically a direct response to that line of thinking, to the guy who says, “Why doesn’t he just stop thinking and swing?!”
“I’d love to,” Spieth says. “But the second I try and just pick a tree and swing at it, the ball goes pretty far offline. There still needs to be focus on the mechanics.”
I’m not saying that Spieth is wrong. But there was a moment during his range session on Wednesday afternoon when he stared intently at the player next to him, World No. 1 Dustin Johnson. At risk of oversimplifying, D.J. hits it where he’s looking. If he picks a tree and swings at that tree, I’d recommend that tree duck, because there’s a high-speed golf ball headed its way.
Listening to Spieth, you hear occasional strains of despair, but never for more than a moment, because he’ll follow that despair with a silver lining. For instance, on Thursday, he said he played quite well when he was just committing to hitting a draw, he pointed out.
“I made two doubles and two bogeys on the four swings I played fades on,” he said ruefully. If he’d just stuck with draws, he’d likely have been under par!
Another despair/hope combo: “All in all, shooting three over at a U.S. Open feeling like I had no control, it’s not bad.” The “no control” bit sounds troubling. But the battling part? That sounds like there’s room to make some magic.
Again, if I were Jordan Spieth, I would probably not want to talk much about my three-over 73, and nobody would have been particularly upset if Spieth had respectfully declined media after the round. An opening 73 isn’t newsworthy, not unless you’re Tiger Woods, who opened with a newsworthy 73.
But any 73 becomes newsworthy once Jordan Spieth stands at a microphone and speaks honestly about how he feels over the golf ball.
“Standing on a tee at the U.S. Open and not exactly knowing where the ball is going to go is not a great feeling,” Spieth said, gazing out at a motley crew of masked reporters. “I know you guys probably haven’t experienced that before, but it’s not incredibly enjoyable.”
The thing is, we kind of have experienced that. If you take out “at the U.S. Open” from his previous quote, nearly every golfer can relate to “not exactly knowing where the ball is going to go.” We don’t want Spieth to relate to that, because we want him to be the best of us.
Maybe Spieth is the best of us, though. Maybe that’s the point. In trying times, he keeps talking to the curious press, and why he answers questions with thought, care, patience, honesty, courtesy. Maybe it’s why Patrick Reed praised his ability to Spieth’s desire to find the best score he could, some way, somehow.
“I’ll grind it out. I don’t ever give up,” Spieth said. “I have no reason to. I’m here.”
Then he went to practice.