SPRINGFIELD, N.J. — It’s been a dicey battle for Jordan Spieth this year, living up to inflated expectations in 2016, following a year of success only a few men have matched in the game’s history.
He’s been frustrated, both on and off the course, by some of the ways golf media has handled his words, his decisions, and—more than anything—his collapse on the back nine of the Masters. Spieth’s most recent gripe, just 10 days ago at the British Open, came down to “negative questions” and just how many more of those he has received than the positive variety.
It’s true; 2016 for Spieth has been far different than 2015, but mainly in ways media members typically analyze. After his Masters debacle, in which he blew a four-shot lead, Spieth has missed the cut at the Players, blown a Sunday lead in his hometown, shot three over on the weekend to drop out of contention at the Memorial and treaded water after barely making the cut at the U.S. and British Opens.
Moreover, he lost control of the No. 1 spot in the world, the No. 2 spot 14 weeks later and failed to break par in 10 consecutive major rounds. Add in his decision to skip the Olympics, a more publicly recognized sense that he…doesn’t…play…fast and (despite two victories and six top 10s) it has been easy to say Spieth has struggled.
Yes, 2015 set him up for that.
“If we’re in a valley, that’s a great valley to be in, right,” Spieth said rhetorically Tuesday afternoon at the PGA Championship. It’s a sentiment he has repeated this year, as recently as two weeks ago at the British Open. If two victories and nearly $5 million earned on the course this Tour season are a valley, that sure is a great valley to be in.
Yet bookmakers have punished his odds, pushing him near 14-1 while the other three members of golf’s ‘Big’ quartet remain nearly twice as favorable. When Spieth naturally regressed from smashing golf records, a pair of men in their 40s and the tidal wave known as Dustin Johnson stole the show.
In this “valley” of sorts, Spieth is lurking, seemingly so-so and toiling with his swing. He did the same thing this spring before racing out to a huge lead at the Masters. He did the same thing 10 months ago, missing two cuts in the playoffs before blitzing the field at the Tour Championship. His game might just be pulling Houdini tricks again this July.
“I don’t think that I am a better player this year than I was last year,” Spieth said. “I think I’m the same player.”
In some facets of the game, Spieth has improved. In others, he’s shown a slight decrease, but wholly, he thinks he’s the same as he was last year, when it took a record 20-under peformance from Jason Day to keep Spieth’s hands off the Wanamaker trophy.
“I’m hitting the ball further this year, which is really nice,” Spieth said. “I have more confidence in my mid- to long-iron play than I did last year.”
If that confidence transcends from merely a talking point for Spieth into actual strokes gained on the golf course, this could be the week he no longer lurks in a valley, but reenters the conversation. Even the Player of the Year conversation.
His arena will be Baltusrol Golf Club, a 121-year-old course demanding in length—playing longer than 7,400 yards at par-70—and not the type you can constantly bludgeon with a driver-wedge combination. All four par-3s play near 200 yards or longer, while six of the par-4s stretch beyond 450 yards, which means plenty of mid- to long-irons for the field. The first par-5, measuring 650-plus yards, offers little in birdie security, as Spieth revisited Tuesday.
“This is going to be a really hard hole if you miss the fairway,” he said as his tee shot soared into the left rough. Yes it will be. The same goes for the rest of the long, traditional, tree-lined and rough-protected course.
Following Spieth on the tee was the last pro to win at Baltusrol, Phil Mickelson, who spent most of the day in Spieth’s ear reading putts and playing cheerleader as teammate in their match against Justin Thomas and Colt Knost. The 24-year veteran Mickelson knows a thing or two about living among unfair expectations, dealing with peaks and valleys and, as Spieth is trying to do this week, triumphing when it is least expected.
For the 23-year-old Spieth, dominance in this game continually begs for more, fair or not, from the media, fans or even his own internal desires.
“When you get to a certain level,” Mickelson said. “If you don’t win a major, the year is going to be a letdown no matter how you look at it.”
Spieth’s 2016 gets its last chance this week.