LA JOLLA, Calif. — Jordan Spieth is not quite there yet, but he’s not that far off, and when he gets it figured out, watch out. He could leave everyone far behind.
That’s the takeaway after watching the 20-year-old dynamo from Texas open 71-63 while playing in the marquee threesome with Tiger Woods (and Jimmy Walker), but fade with a pair of weekend 75s that left him in 19th place, five behind winner Scott Stallings (68) at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines.
“Same thing I saw at the Presidents Cup, the kid’s got talent,” Tiger Woods said Friday, when Spieth beat him by eight shots. “He hits it a long way, phenomenal putter.”
Alas, whatever Spieth had working the first two days went away on the weekend, when he hit just 12 of 28 fairways and 20 of 36 greens, and took 61 putts.
To win on Tour, a player must be able to go low when he’s swinging well. Check. He must get even sharper as the stakes get higher, the way Spieth did in demolishing Woods. A player must limit the damage on the bad days, as Spieth did Saturday, when he played the last 13 holes in 1 under to shoot 75 and go into the last round just a shot behind 54-hole leader Gary Woodland (74, T10).
Indeed, there was only thing Spieth failed to do, and had he done it, he’d have probably won. He couldn’t find a go-to shot when his swing got out of sync.
“Typically I can,” Spieth said, “and this is really the first event since as long as I can remember where I really just had no idea where the ball was going to go. I had an 8-iron from the middle of the fairway, laying up to about a 30-yard wide area with a stock 8-iron on 18, and I missed the fairway by 10 yards. That shot is a borderline shank. I just don't know what happened, so I just need to get home, work with my instructor and come back to Pebble [Beach, home of the AT&T, in two weeks].”
If Spieth can have no idea where the ball is going and yet still be in contention until the 15th hole of the final round — it was on 15 that he bladed a bunker shot over the green and had to get up and down to salvage bogey, dropping to 6 under—then what can we expect when he is playing well? Total world domination?
“He doesn’t seem like he’s 20,” said Stewart Cink, who shot a killing 79 when he was paired with Spieth on Saturday.
Here’s how Spieth began his sophomore season on Tour: second place at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions at Kapalua, in his first crack at that quirky course. Notwithstanding his missed cut at the Sony Open this year, Spieth is at the point where he is contending almost every time he plays. That’s hard to do. He played the last 36 holes at Torrey with his C game, and a sore ankle. That’s hard to do, too.
“I felt it the second day on the back nine and I just kind of — I guess I just stopped loading as well on it and I started missing fairways,” he said.
And yet he hung in there. He made a nearly 40-foot birdie putt over a hump in the green to birdie the par-3 third hole Sunday. That got him to 8 under overall, tied with playing partners Marc Leishman (72, 8 under, T2) and Woodland. But it didn’t last. In fact it was Spieth’s last birdie of the day. If there was a turning point to his round — which is debatable, considering how poorly he hit the ball — it was probably at the par-5 sixth hole.
Spieth had finally hit a fairway on No. 5, albeit 27 yards behind Woodland, and did it again on the 6th hole. That was important, because the other thing you’ve got to do to win at this level is birdie the par-5s, especially on a stingy track like Torrey South. Spieth hit a solid second shot that rolled over the green, coming to rest in what was reportedly a very good lie — before it was stepped on by a cameraman. After taking a drop Spieth nearly chipped in for eagle, but when he pulled his seven-foot birdie putt, he started coming unglued.
“I hit a good chip shot anyways,” Spieth said, “but when the putt missed it just got in my head. It carried to 7 and it really shouldn't have.” (Spieth drove into the bunker and then missed a six-and-a-half-foot par putt on the par-4 seventh hole.)
“I'll learn from that just to brush it off,” he said. “There's no reason [my ball on 6 was stepped on], there's nothing I could do about it, I couldn't prevent it—I wasn't to the green yet. So all in all just really wasn't mentally ready to win this week. But it's early in the season and I can draw on some confidence from the first two rounds.”
Spieth doesn’t lack for confidence. He just needs to find that go-to shot for when things aren’t going well. If and when he finds it, he’s going to be very, very good.