Jordan Spieth, perhaps more than any current athlete, is a what behavioral scientists would classify as an external processor. When he wants to analyze a situation and determine precisely how he feels about something — for example, a poor shot he just hit on the golf course — it has to occur out loud.
And so, Spieth grumbles. He contemplates. He questions himself, recalculates and reassesses. Sometimes he is happy to share the feeling that what’s just happened to his golf ball seems unfair. Sometimes he wants to justify a decision. Other times he is particularly hard on himself. He doesn’t talk to his caddie Michael Greller as much as he uses him as a therapist and sounding board to do mental laundry. What can come across like whining, from afar, is often just Spieth trying to process why something happened.
If he doesn’t talk about it, he cannot wipe his mental slate clean and focus on the next shot, the next hole, the next tournament.
Spieth also does this with the media during his post-round interviews. Tiger Woods, especially at the height of his career, rarely offered up more than short, clipped sentences. The less we knew about his process, the better. Spieth, in contrast, explains his thoughts in paragraphs. He wants to be understood. It is both a blessing and curse for the 24-year-old Texan. No one in golf offers a clearer window into what’s going on inside his head. No one is better at explaining his triumphs and his failures.
But Spieth is beginning to understand that by doing so, he is handing the world the scalpel we then use to cut him open and study his vulnerabilities.
“I think that there have been times I’ve offered too much information that I regretted afterward,” Spieth said recently, when asked how it feels to be subjected to amateur psychoanalysis. “But at the same time, I just try and answer the questions open, honestly. I probably should get shorter in the future. None of you guys want to hear that, but that’s probably going to be the case.”
This season, there has been a lot to study. Miss a handful of short putts, as Spieth has, and concede you sometimes feel uncomfortable standing over them? Get ready to read a dozen pieces prior to every major about how you’ve lost your magic touch on the greens.
If Spieth does not pull off a surprising victory in Scotland this week at The Open at Carnoustie, it will mark a full calendar year since he has won a golf tournament. You can look at that factoid two different ways. In the big-picture sense, it means little. A year, after all, is an arbitrary, perhaps even meaningless measuring stick. A career is what matters. Spieth will turn 25 the week after The Open. He already has 11 PGA Tour victories. The only player in the past 30 years with more Tour victories before his 25th birthday is, not surprisingly, Woods, with 24. Being second on that list is a remarkable accomplishment.
In a micro sense, though, it’s hard to look back on the past 12 months of Spieth’s golfing life and not feel at least a small measure of concern. Something seems amiss. The last time Spieth went a full year without winning a golf tournament is a bit murky. But it appears it hasn’t happened for more than a decade. This looks like the longest slump of his golfing career.
His whole life, Spieth has won, regardless of how old he was, or what state his game was in. He won an American Junior Golf Association tournament in Texas when he was 12. He won a district title for his prep school at age 13. He won the U.S. Junior Amateur at age 14. He won three consecutive 5A state championships, and another U.S. Junior Amateur, while playing for Jesuit Prep High School in Dallas. He won three times as freshman at the University of Texas. He won as a rookie on the PGA Tour in 2013, won the Australian Open in 2014 and has won multiple times on Tour every year since.
“I think my patience has been tested [this season], just not going into Sunday with a legitimate chance to win.”
It’s hard to know what to make of it. Off the course, his life seems stable. He got engaged to his longtime girlfriend, Annie Verret, in late December. He hasn’t been injured or ill. He just isn’t getting the ball in the hole the way he used to.
“I think my patience has been tested [this season], just not going into Sunday with a legitimate chance to win,” Spieth said.
What’s baffling, more than his inconsistent results, is the reason he’s been struggling. He’s still hitting the ball beautifully, ranking 14th on Tour in strokes gained tee-to-green. But the skill that turned him into a generational player — his putting — has more or less vanished. He used to wield his rusty Scotty Cameron putter like an artist holding a paintbrush. The greens were essentially his canvas. Now he looks pained and uncomfortable holding the same club. Golf Digest — which lists Spieth as a playing editor on its masthead — has written numerous articles, and produced a handful of instructional videos, offering readers tips on how to putt like Spieth. It’s been awkward to see him struggle like this when he once looked like a maestro.
Statistically, he’s been one of the worst putters on Tour this season, ranking 177th in strokes gained putting out of 205 eligible players. He’s occasionally struggled somewhat, compared to his peers, on short putts. But this year the drop-off in that category has been surreal. He’s ranked 202nd on Tour in putts from 3 feet or less. In 2017, he was eighth. In 2017, he was third on Tour in 3-putt avoidance. This year he’s 134th.
Even Jason Dufner, who has dealt with questions for several years about whether he has the yips, has actually been significantly better than Spieth on the greens in 2018, ranking 98th in strokes gained. Woods, dogged during his comeback by his own putting woes, ranks a respectable 52nd.
“Everyone goes through peaks and valleys of results in any part of your game,” Spieth said at the U.S. Open, insisting he hadn’t paid attention to the growing concern and coverage about his putting. “I just got a little off in setup, and I’m really starting to bring it back now. It feels very good.”
Regardless of how it felt going into the tournament, it was clear his stroke was still wobbly at Shinnecock Hills last month, when Spieth missed the cut in a major championship for the first time in more than three years. His pre-shot routine has always been a little quirky, even a touch laborious. He views the hole from every angle before he takes his stance, he wiggles his feet, he checks and re-checks his line, he mutters to himself. When he’s finally ready, he tilts the handle of his putter toward the target as a trigger, and then tries to let his mind go into what he describes as “blackout mode” where he just putts intuitively.
Nothing has noticeably changed from the past few years. The putts just aren’t going in, and Spieth is losing patience analyzing it with the media. After he missed a 9-foot par putt on the 18th hole in the second round at Shinnecock, a bogey that left him one shot outside the cutline, he blew past the media on his way to the locker room, telling a USGA press liaison he “didn’t see the use in it” when asked if he’d pause for an interview.
The following week at the Travelers Championship, he didn’t get in contention despite a first-round 63, finishing 43rd, but he did have one of his best putting performances of the season, gaining .812 strokes on the greens.
“My putting’s right on point where it needs to be,” Spieth said, sounding mildly defensive. “It’s getting better every single week. It’s the best it’s been in a couple years.”
The trouble with breaking out of a putting slump is, the delicate act of rolling the ball along the ground is as much an art as it is a science. You can study the angle of attack in your full swing with the help of a TrackMan, you can watch slow-motion videos and tweak your clubs to get better launch numbers or optimum spin rates. Putting, though, is different. Putting comes down, mostly, to feel. How do you recapture a feeling without trying to force it?
“It’s extremely difficult [not to overthink it],” said Justin Thomas, the No. 2 player in the world and one of Spieth’s good friends. “It’s by far the most mental part of golf. Because you can putt well for whatever the period of time is and not make anything. We all know that Jordan, and the putting capability he has. The same with Tiger. They’re two of the best putters to ever play the game. Jordan has made some putts in my face when I’m playing with him. I have no doubt that they’ll be putting it great again. Just like anything, it takes time and just kind of getting that inner confidence back.”
Sometimes, with the putter, it’s as simple as resorting back to childhood memories, not getting overly technical and just focusing on the feeling you had when you were learning the game. Woods has always subscribed to that theory and reiterated it recently when someone asked who had most influenced his putting technique. “Then there’s been no better teacher that I’ve ever had than my dad,” Woods said. “I’ve had coaches throughout my career, but my dad was the best teacher I’ve ever had with putting and probably ever will.”
It’s easy to forget how fragile Spieth’s psyche looked during last year’s Open. How lost and stressed he seemed on the front nine during the final round at Birkdale. He was blowing another lead in a major. As he was walking between shots, he was already thinking about facing questions regarding another final-round collapse. Spieth has always been uniquely self-aware and open for a professional athlete. Not only did he experience those emotions, he was willing to admit he felt them.
Then, improbably, he shocked the world by playing the next four holes in five-under par.
“All of a sudden the lid came off,” Spieth said. “The 30-footers were 2-footers to me. I don’t know why I can’t make it a little more boring sometimes.”
It’s a good reminder that, when he seems like he’s unraveling, it’s actually the spark that helps his magic return.