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“Go get that,” Jordan Spieth shouted, ordering his caddie, Michael Greller, to pick up the ball that had just dived into the cup from 48 feet. It was a display of such prodigious nerve, or “moxie” as his fellow Texans might call it, that his three-word instruction on Royal Birkdale’s 15th green would soon be emblazoned on his fans’ baseball caps, marking the moment he wrapped up his first Open title. On that drizzly Southport evening in 2017, he was, at 23, the youngest player in history to hold three majors and 11 tour victories. By far the most arresting statistic, though, is that he has not won again since.
Every year since his Augusta debut in 2014, where he tied for second behind Bubba Watson, Spieth has been a fixture of the Masters’ build-up, analysing the vagaries of the course with precocious authority. This time, he is not even included on the interview schedule, despite winning in 2015 and finishing inside the top three on four of his six starts. The boy king who became world No 1 in only his third season on the PGA Tour finds himself 81st in the standings, his ranking falling faster than the Zoom share price on the day an effective Covid-19 vaccine is confirmed.
It is a capricious mistress, fame. One moment Birkdale’s autograph-hunters are falling over ropes to glad-hand you, the next the tournament where you have enjoyed the greatest success is trying to ease you gently into the shadows. In fairness, Augusta will ensure that Spieth has his share of privileges this week, as he takes his place at Tiger Woods’ table for the champions’ dinner on Tuesday and slips back into the green jacket that barely left his side after his triumph five years ago. The jacket is far too large for him, since he never had it tailored. Alas, his billing as golf’s next phenomenon – in keeping with his status as only the second man to win three different majors before the age of 24, the other being Jack Nicklaus – has also proved increasingly difficult to wear.
A primary reason for Spieth’s precipitous decline is his vanishing accuracy. When he claimed back-to-back majors in 2015, his ball-striking was a wonder to behold, so pure at Augusta that he came within a hair’s breadth of breaking Woods’ scoring record of 18 under par. Since then, such control has evaporated, dropping him from second on the tour’s tee-to-green averages in 2017 to 161st last year. His extraordinary feel, his talent for shaping the ball exactly as he had envisaged, has been eroded, as has his confidence.
At first, it seemed only to be his putting that was the problem, to the point where he was often asked what had deserted him on the greens. But the malaise has seeped into every other department of his game, contributing to six missed cuts this year. In the past two seasons, he has failed even to qualify for the Tour Championship in Atlanta, which accepts only the top 30 players. Steve Stricker, the US captain for next year’s Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits, has tried to diagnose the problem, explaining: “It feels like he’s really grinding. He doesn’t look as consistent.”
Spieth acknowledges himself that the devil-may-care attitude of his youth is impossible to recapture. Now, every stroke is subject to a meticulous balancing of risk and reward that can be torture to watch, let alone to experience. He has never been quite the same since the Masters in 2018, when he stood on the 10th tee with a four-shot lead, only to suffer the ghastliest implosions on the short 12th as he deposited two balls in Rae’s Creek. Who knows how deep the scar tissue of that day runs? All we can say with certainty is that for 3½ years, Spieth has been suffering an acute case of paralysis by analysis.
In 2015, his annus mirabilis, Spieth invited comparisons galore with Nicklaus and Woods. These days, the more fitting parallel tends to be with Lee Trevino, a fellow son of Dallas, who won his first five majors in seven years before fading into a prolonged fallow period. The crucial difference, though, is that Trevino’s idea of escaping such a funk was to speed up in his putting so that the agony of missing did not last so long. Spieth, a naturally positive soul, needs to purge the demons and reflect instead that he is potentially just four strong rounds from resurrecting a glorious career. Go get that, indeed.