British Open 2019: What will Jordan Spieth (three back!) do next? That’s anybody’s guess

July 19, 2019

PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland — Jordan Spieth is no longer the best player in golf but he remains the most fascinating. Even when Spieth is at the height of his powers it is a thrilling, high-wire act with the possibility of a sudden crack-up: Think of the 71st hole double bogey to nearly blow the 2015 U.S. Open, or the bogey at Birkdale two years later which was ridiculous and sublime, keying his unlikely back-nine rally. You can’t take your eyes off Spieth because you never know what will happen next, good or bad.

The triumph at the 2017 Open gave Spieth three major-championship victories at the age of 23, a Nicklausian trajectory. But this week marks a grim milestone, as Spieth’s winless streak has reached two full years. Over the first two rounds of the 148th Open he has given us the full Jordan — wild shots, thrilling recoveries, and deadly putting, all of it set to a soundtrack of his own musings and self-flagellations picked up by the on-course microphones.

“How do you control the freaking driver and 3-wood?” Spieth harrumphed after fanning his drive on the 10th hole into the weeds. That could be Spieth’s Open in a nutshell, as continued swing problems have left him in a series of precarious positions. But it is a testament to his grind and creativity and his short-game that he has willed himself into contention, shooting 70-67 to sneak into 9th place, three strokes behind leader Shane Lowry.

The Open is the right place for Spieth to find himself. He has often attributed his consistent contention at Augusta National and on links courses to the heaving terrain, which forces him to play more instinctively and manufacture shots instead of just making the same swing over and over. “I just grew up in the wind, having to play a lot of different shots and using imagination around the greens on the course I grew up at,” Spieth says. “So it’s different but it feeds well into this style of golf.”

But it is an inability to groove a repeatable swing that explains the victory drought. Though his putting gets all the attention, Spieth in 2017 was an elite ballstriker, ranking second on Tour in strokes gained tee-to-green. This year he ranks 144th, nearly two strokes worse per round. Spieth has been grinding with swing coach Cameron McCormick in search of answers but Royal Portrush is not an easy place to find them. During the first round Spieth drove into four pot bunkers, the cardinal sin in links golf and a big reason why he couldn’t break 70 on a day when he played “solid” golf.

Spieth was even wilder off the tee on Friday, hitting only five fairways, but he knew exactly what to do because, he says, “I’ve spent a decent amount of time in some pretty bad spots this season. It’s a feel. I don’t think about the swing. It’s, how is it going to come out? Hold the face open, hold the blade open. I’m clubbing up because I’m hitting a flop shot out of it. My shots out of trouble today were really, really nice.”

He also enjoyed a vintage stretch of Jordan doing Jordan things. He drove the par-4 5th hole and produced a gorgeous lag from 75 feet for a birdie. On the par-3 6th he stuffed a 6-iron for a second straight bird, and then eagled No. 7, a par-5, by rolling in a big bender from off the green. On the very next hole he buried a 15-footer, a vintage five-under-in-four-holes burst to storm up the leaderboard. Playing alongside Spieth was the man who beat him at the 2016 Masters, Danny Willett, who knew something was brewing when his playing partner started walking in putts well before they disappeared into the hole. “You can see when he’s on,” Willett said. “It looks like everything is going to go in. And often does. He seems like he’s as confident as ever.”

In truth, Spieth is a little more fragile than that. To stand on the tee boxes at Royal Portrush, seeing all the horrors that await, it is a disquieting feeling when you don’t know exactly where the ball is going. But Spieth is trying to access the mojo that has carried him to one Open Championship and near-misses in 2015 (when he was chasing the Grand Slam!) and last year at Carnoustie. “If I can kind of walk tall,” he says, “knowing that there’s very few people who have been in this situation contending in the weekend in majors as many times as I have, that’s certainly a confidence boost for myself. So that’s going to be the mentality.”

But first things first. Said Spieth, “At some point I hope to be playing off the short grass this week.”