SPRINGFIELD, N.J. — This was just the kind of Friday that Jordan Spieth needed. It could’ve been better, of course. Every golf round in history could’ve been better, if you ask the golfer. That’s universal.
Spieth’s round was plenty good enough Friday morning, especially after he spent 40 minutes huddled in a tent by the 10th tee while play was suspended by a passing storm that dropped over an inch of rain overnight on Baltusrol Golf Club.
The Man Who Chased the Grand Slam a year ago but is majorless this summer is still in the hunt at the 98th PGA Championship. He shot 67, a very good round, but Spieth had five birdies on his opening nine so that score didn’t sound as low as he deserved. It continued a good comeback from Thursday, when he birdied two of the last three holes to claw back to even par. If he wins or contends on Sunday nobody is going to remember those last four holes he played. Without them, he isn’t where he needs to be.
Spieth was three shots behind Henrik Stenson when the morning wave of players finished. Stenson, your newly minted British Open champ, churned out a second straight 67 with the ease of a child coloring in a book. There are 36 holes to play, though, a lot can happen and Spieth is going to at least be in the neighborhood no matter who leads going into the third round.
His situation is good, just not great. Let’s take a quick look at Jordan Spieth’s List of Woes:
One. Swede smell of success. Stenson isn’t going away. It will be an upset if he doesn’t grind out two more 67s or better. So Spieth’s target, everyone’s target, had better be 12 under par by Sunday evening. Step One is to beat Baltusrol’s Lower Course. Step Two is to catch and beat Mr. Stenson or anyone else who tries to pull away from the field. (But it’ll be probably be Stenson.)
Two. The putter. Thursday, Spieth kept leaving his putts short, as did a lot of players. The greens looked faster than they played. They were foolers. Friday, Spieth said, the greens rolled at least two feet faster—that’s inside golf talk related to the Stimpmeter, a device that measures the speed of the putting surface. Despite the quicker speeds, which are to Spieth’s liking, he’s just not holing the longer putts he’s used to holing. You might think he sounds spoiled on this point. The reality is, he’s just that good.
“I’m hitting the ball fantastic,” Spieth said. “I just can’t get a putt to go in outside 10 feet. And from 10 to 20 feet, the amount of opportunities I’ve had aren’t that difficult, I would be five, six, seven strokes better right now if I was putting up to my standard. Inside of 10, I made quite a few good birdie putts to get in contention.”
Golf’s other universal truth is that no one ever makes enough putts, not even if you’re considered the game’s best putter. That club is always why you can never count him out.
Three. The driver. This club has held him back in 2016 more than any other. Did he possibly spend too much time in the brief offseason trying to get longer? He was frequently paired with the other members of the former Big Three, Jason Day and Rory McIlroy, who bomb drives like artillery shells. It would be understandable if a golfer felt inadequate after playing with Day in last year’s PGA at Whistling Straights. Day routinely had it out there 350, 360, 380 on the firm and fast slopes.
Spieth gained a little distance this year but ranks 113th in driving accuracy and a dysfunctional 163rd in greens hit in regulation. The game’s best putter can’t make birdie putts he doesn’t have because he’s not on the green.
It starts with the driver. Spieth is fit but he’s no muscleman like Day or Dustin Johnson, who can power a swing through the rough and still get it on the green with some control. He has to hit fairways to give himself birdie chances and he hasn’t done that.
Four. The impatient patient. The sense of urgency is palpable at Baltusrol. After this PGA, it’ll be nine months until the Masters, the next major. Sure, the FedEx Cup is nice and all that and it helped Spieth rack up $25 million in winnings last year. The majors are what elite players like Spieth live for. It will be a long offseason for Spieth, McIlroy or Day if none of them win a major this year.
Spieth said he’s been trying to talk less with caddie Michael Greller after poor shots and just move on to the next. Less bark, in other words, and more looking ahead. He began to get impatient with media types after his round, though, when they kept asking questions about an unusual drop he took on the 7th hole, his 16th of the day. He ended up making a bogey, but it was an odd situation.
His errant drive ended up in the right rough on a pitted gravel-cinder cart path that had puddles. His ball came to rest on the left half of the path so if he took relief from the cart path, which he was entitled to do, he would’ve been tangled up or blocked by a large tree next to him. That was no good. He could, however, take relief from casual water and still drop it on the path—as long as he took full relief from the puddles. Getting help from a rules official, Spieth carefully did just that and eventually played a shot off the path, making sure the toes on one foot hovered above the puddle’s edge without touching. It was a golf-smart use of the rules and Spieth hit a draw that flew just over the green. He made bogey but he gave himself a shot at par. The PGA of America released a statement after the incident, explaining why Spieth’s drop was OK according to the rules.
Here is Spieth’s version of what went on. Given the Dustin Johnson situation at Oakmont, it’s worth a long explanation.
“It was really weird,” Spieth admitted. “It was as complicated a drop as I’ve ever really had. I just tried to find out all the options.
“He (rules official) asked me, Hey, if there were no casual water on the cart path, what would you do here? I said I would for sure play it. I would play it off the path. Anybody would. There was no other shot except to punch one up No. 10. I decided to take relief from the casual water, which I didn’t do correctly the first couple of drops. Finally, on the last one, it went into a location more straight back in line with the hole where I could then have a stance in line with the hole that would not be in casual water. I then altered my stance to play a different shot than what I would have played had it been on the original angle of my drops. Because of that, (the official) said we were following the correct rules and we were taking relief. So I trust my rules official there. I would have never hit if I was not told it was okay by a rules official. He told me it was fine. I really don’t know why we’re talking about this, to be honest. It was a casual water relief drop that took a little extra time. It was no problem.”
What Spieth didn’t realize was that at Oakmont, Johnson was also told that he had played by the rules correctly and did not have a problem. Then he was famously overruled and drew a penalty after the round. So that’s why the questions were persistent. Thanks to the USGA’s inconsistent rulings at Oakmont, now no rules decisions are ever really final. But that’s another issue. There are 36 holes to play in this PGA. A lot of top players still have a chance to win the year’s final major championship. Spieth is one of them.