SPRINGFIELD, N.J. — A small patch of blue sky briefly appeared in the gruff gray clouds late Sunday afternoon above Baltusrol Golf Club. After a weekend of rain and delays, it felt like a not-very-funny joke.
Jordan Spieth hit his third shot on the 18th hole and spun it back inside seven feet from the hole, drawing a loud, extended roar. By the time he arrived on the green and was welcomed by another huge ovation, that blue patch of sky had disappeared, covered up by more waves of gray.
Spieth’s playing partner, Yuta Ikeda, was up first and rolled in a long eagle putt that Spieth helped him celebrate by raising his putter in the air with his left arm. Then the young Texan, ever the professional, carefully lined up his nine-footer for birdie. The putt burned the lip, ran two feet past and resulted in just another par.
The closing scenes of this 98th PGA Championship were Spieth’s major championship season in a microcosm. Bright, brief promise followed by a near miss and disappointment.
The door slammed shut on Spieth’s 2016 major campaign on the last day of July. He was never in contention at this PGA Championship but Spieth has some Phil Mickelson in him. He believes what matters most is the next shot and the next tournament. Spieth likes to look ahead and find the positives. He was three under par in the first two rounds and three under in the last two, finishing a stroke outside the top 10.
“I hit the ball well enough over the 36 holes to really make a run and just couldn’t quite get it in the hole on the greens,” Spieth said. “That’s pretty strange but the [British] Open was the same way. I’m just waiting for it all to click. I believe it will soon. I missed some short putts this week and couldn’t get any momentum from the midrange game but I’m really, really happy the way I’m striking the ball. Putting is normally a strength so it’s all positive from here.
“It’s a tournament of what could have been given how well I struck the ball. It’s going to happen.”
He wondered aloud if maybe he spent so much time working on his ballstriking that he let his short game slip. He also thought he still had a chance to win Sunday morning, when he teed off to began his 36-hole day. “I thought if I could get to 12-under, I would have a chance,” Spieth said.
“That’s a tall task. That’s 65-66. I knew I would have enough opportunities and I did. I made only two bogeys over 36 holes and I typically made five birdies or so per round. I just couldn’t get them in.”
His closing 69-68 was a nice finish but Spieth wasn’t looking for nice. He was looking for great. He raised the bar for himself, and for golf observers, when last year he went to the 71st hole of all four major championships with a chance to win. He chased the Grand Slam. He won two major titles.
This year will be classified as a fail. Spieth won at Kapalua and Colonial. He had a chance to win a second Masters but memorably botched the 12th hole at Amen Corner, the equivalent of fumbling the snap for the winning field goal. He was an awkward presence at the awards ceremony when he presented Danny Willett with a green jacket. It was tough to watch and tough to take and even Spieth joked about the reactions he got in the weeks following it from people who sympathized with him.
There were three more majors to go, though, so there were chances for redemption. That win at Colonial in May came at just the right time. There’s nothing like a Texan winning a Texas tournament. That momentum didn’t carry over, though. Spieth shockingly wasn’t a factor in the last three majors on the weekend. After 36 holes, he trailed by eight strokes at Oakmont, 14 at Royal Troon and six at Baltusrol.
He turned 23 last week so talk of this season being a significant letdown seems laughable, given the long future ahead of him. Still, Dustin Johnson and Jason Day are formidable rivals and surely Rory McIlroy will regain his form, too. What Spieth should have learned from 2016 is that opportunities to win majors are dear at any age. He cashed in twice in four tries last year. He missed once badly this year. In golf, you move on.
Asked for his perspective on this year’s majors, Spieth said his goal at the start of the year was to have a chance to win at least two of them. That’s what you say when you want to sound humble (because you are). It’s also what you say when you got blanked and want to take the edge off the disappointment.
“Almost,” is how he sized up his year. “I was a couple of swings away from winning the Masters. If I close that one out, it’s one of the best major seasons I’ll ever have. I’m not going to hang my head low. I made the cut in all four, which obviously isn’t my goal. I contended in one and had a chance to win. I learned a lot from that experience. It wasn’t a bad showing in the four majors.”
The Masters disaster didn’t affect his year, in his opinion. A bigger factor was that his ball-striking, notably his driving and that dreaded block-right shot he couldn’t shake off, was not as good as last year and his putting wasn’t consistently as strong, either. The timing stinks but now Spieth thinks he’s tipped on to something. He can’t wait to play more golf. The FedEx Cup playoffs. The Ryder Cup. He’s looking forward, as always.
“I threw some lasers this week that I don’t normally throw,” he said. “I hit a lot of fairways. I felt pretty comfortable that I knew what the ball was going to do. If my putting was up to the normal standard, the Open and here would have been a lot more fun — potentially contending. Maybe not at the Open — those guys [Mickelson and Henrik Stenson] went nuts. But no, I don’t think the Masters changed anything at all.”
Spieth was truly excited to discuss his swing improvements this week. He said he’s getting his hands lower on the downswing and making better contact with the center of the clubface. His misses, therefore, were off the toe and not the heel. “I struck the ball on the middle of the face here even when it went off line,” he said with a grin he couldn’t contain. “I’m pretty excited about that.”
He’s also excited about gearing up for a six-week stretch in which he intends to showcase his best golf of the year. He’ll try to defend his FedEx Cup title and during the off-week maybe buzz up to Minnesota for a Ryder Cup preview at Hazeltine with some of his teammates.
After that? Well, the next major is the Masters. It’s going to be a long nine months. Then it all starts again.