AKRON, Ohio — Call off the search party. Jordan Spieth is alive and well.
Hey, he’s even on the Bridgestone Invitational leaderboard at Firestone Country Club’s South Course.
The young star has been wrestling with his game all year, despite wins at the Tournament of Champions and at Colonial. He made the cut at Oakmont but was never a factor. Thursday, he wasn’t looking like much of a factor, either, as he spent much of the day hiking through the South’s grabby rough and trees.
William McGirt, your newly minted Memorial Tournament champion, was twice as good as the rest of the field on opening day, shooting a 6-under 64. Jason Day, the world’s top-ranked player, is among three players at 3 under while Spieth and Rickie Fowler are in a foursome at 2 under.
McGirt’s bogey-free round was good but it might not have been better than Spieth’s. Easier? Yes. Better? Hard to say.
Spieth survived assorted safaris before making birdies on the last four holes to salvage 68. It was a putting clinic of extraordinary caliber, and Spieth has had a few of those in the past. Add this to the list.
“That would go up there with the best putting rounds of my life,” said Spieth, who made five birdies despite hitting only nine greens in regulation, and only 2 of the first 13. “But hey, my chipping is on, my short game is on. I’m pretty pleased. It’s one of the best — one of the happiest 2-unders I’ve ever shot. I wasn’t supposed to shoot 2 under today. I kind of wish we’d kept on playing, even though I felt so poor most of the round.”
Spieth ranked eighth in strokes gained putting, a complicated stat that computes how a player fared compared to the rest of the field. So let’s use some stats we can understand. He needed only 21 putts — that’s a mere 21, people! — and they totaled just over118 feet in length. He missed 11 greens and got up and down for par on eight of them.
It was impressive, and it had Spieth feeling better about himself than he’s felt in a long time. He had a little swagger going, and who wouldn’t after four closing birdies?
He believes he’s close to getting out of what he calls “a little lull.” He’s been working hard, hitting a lot of balls and feels as if it’s just a matter of time. It’s the kind of line that Tiger Woods used to get made fun of for saying, but when Spieth says it and putts the way he did Thursday, you believe him.
“Once I find something that clicks, I can run with it,” Spieth said. “It’s the same feeling I had the last round or so at the U.S. Open and in practice last week, and I’ve really been searching. This is kind of a phase that everyone goes through — a down phase in ball-striking where you’re just trying to find something that frees you up to swing through the ball. I’m searching for something that isn’t far off, that’s real simple, that feels like I’m more compact in my swing . It’s almost there and when it clicks, we’re definitely in business the way my short game is on right now.”
Starting at the 15th, Spieth holed birdie putts on the last four holes of 12, 10, 25 and 5 feet. Before that, he kept his round going with a 21-footer for par from the fringe at No. 8 and 22 feet to save par at the ninth. It was dazzling stuff.
If believing you have turned a corner is turning a corner, as is so often the case in golf, then maybe Spieth is on his way back to the top of his game.
“The way that I walked around the course today was much less exhausting than some of the rounds of 3-, 4-under I’ve shot this year,” he said. “I really walked around it with my head held high the whole time. This was actually not that frustrating, surprisingly.”
He told caddie Michael Greller before the round that, starting today, he’s going to be mentally stronger on the course for the rest of this year. He also tried to pick up his pace of play, which he thought he did.
The Bridgestone Invitational has a small field — 61 players but only 59 after Daniel Berger and Brooks Koepka pulled out Thursday — and that keeps more players within striking distance.
Spieth is in good shape. So is Fowler. He hopes his lull is over, too.
After finishing fourth at the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow, Fowler missed consecutive cuts at The Players, the Memorial Tournament and the U.S. Open before making the cut last week and finishing 44th after a dismal 73-74 weekend at Congressional.
At Firestone on Thursday, Fowler bogeyed the opening hole but rallied on the front nine. He had a good day with the driver, a club that has been “spotty,” he said, most of the year. He also had a good day around the greens and with the putter, like Spieth. He needed only 23 putts and got up and down for par on seven of the nine greens he missed in regulation.
“Today was a little bit more of how I was in ’14 at the majors and managing to get it around when I don’t have everything going well,” he said. “I made some good par putts and keep the momentum rolling. I feel like that’s where I’ve been struggling kind of a little bit of the first half of the year. I still played well in Phoenix, but after that it felt like the putter kind of went a little south and wasn’t making putts that you need to to keep momentum going. That’s a lot of it, and it can start weighing on the golf swing, you start pressing, and the putter can save you a lot.”