With the PGA Championship’s move to May, Jordan Spieth is the next man up in the race to try and become just the sixth player to win the career Grand Slam. Rory McIlroy missed his chance, again, at the Masters, and Phil Mickelson must wait for another June and the U.S. Open.
The good news for the 25-year-old Texan on Sunday at the AT&T Byrson Nelson? His 138 total over the final two rounds was his lowest on a weekend this season.
The bad news? Spieth tied for 29th, a dozen strokes back of winner Sung Kang, after shooting an even-par 71 on Sunday, his highest score of the week by three shots and just two better than the highest number posted all day.
“I was very disappointed with even par, just with how scoreable the conditions are, but, you know, I feel like I made some progress,” Spieth said to reporters. “Like the way I putted this week, continuing to putt better and better each week which is nice, frees the long game up.
“Better this week than it has been any week this year, so feels like good stuff coming. Just stay the course.”
Eh, a bumpy course it has been.
Spieth hasn’t won in nearly two full years, with his last victory coming at the 2017 Open Championship at Royal Birkdale. Last season, he failed to qualify for the Tour Championship for the first time. And entering the Nelson, the former World No. 1 had dipped all the way to 39th, his lowest ranking since his rookie year in 2013.
With his T-29 at Trinity Forest—where he made four bogeys to go with four birdies on Sunday—he has now made 14 starts this season without a top-20 finish. After winning the FedEx Cup in 2015, he currently sits 150th in the season-long points race.
So what gives?
Unlike last season, when Spieth ranked 123rd in strokes gained/putting, it’s not the flat stick. At least not entirely—he was 50th entering the week at his hometown track in Big D (which apparently now stands for double after he made one in each of the first two rounds to bring his total for the year to 20).
If you’ve watched the 25-year-old three-time major champion play any this year, the bigger problem is some of the places he’s hitting it. Spieth is 205th in strokes gained/off-the-tee and 120th in approach shots. It’s no wonder, then, that he’s tied for 96th in bogey avoidance.
It doesn’t help, either, that Spieth is not the bomb-and-gouge type—he averages only slightly more than 295 yards a pop off the tee, which is good for 84th on tour. Matt Kuchar, a two-time winner this season and the FedEx leader, is even worse at 291 yards (124th), but he’s 54th in strokes gained/off-the-tee and ninth in approach.
Still, Spieth is bullish about his chances next week at Bethpage Black, a big ball park that will likely play even longer after the area has been pounded with heavy rain in recent weeks.
“I think I do what I did this week and just try and limit the mistakes a little bit,” he said. “I feel like my game is ready to contend. Just a matter of getting there and getting in the same group.”
Brooks Koepka, on the other hand, looks plenty ready to contend. The reigning PGA champ had a chance to win in Dallas on Sunday, before finishing fourth, and next week he can become the first player to hold back-to-back titles in two majors at the same time after having won the last two U.S. Opens. The last time Spieth won a major, Koepka, whom Spieth competed against in the NCAA Regionals in the spring of 2012, had just one major title to his credit.
Yet Spieth remains optimistic (or perhaps hopeful) about the overall direction of his game, despite what naysayers (or results) say.
“It’s just, quite simply put, there’s a lot of experts out there that actually have no idea what they’re saying,” he said earlier this week in Dallas. “It’s actually not hard to say what I’m going to do. The very frustrating part is personally knowing what I need to do and not being able to do it.
“But what I’m trying to work on really did get off very significantly. It does take time, and I’m certainly at peace with that now. I don’t feel the need, by any means, to have to do something here, there or with any time frame. So, I feel good about being patient with it.”
And the rest of us might want to settle in and order up some patience, too. Because it might be a while.