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Can Jordan Spieth Continue His Comeback At The Masters?

Golf is a cruel, illogical game. In most other sports, a generational, world-class talent will more or less stay that way until age or major injury changes things. Elite golfers are not afforded such luxury. Just ask Jordan Spieth.

In July 2017, Spieth was both the future and present of golf. Days before he turned 24, Spieth outdueled Matt Kuchar on the back nine of Royal Birkdale to win the British Open. It was his third major victory since 2015 and his 11th professional win. With Masters and U.S. Open victories already on his resume, he became the first golfer since Jack Nicklaus to win three different majors by age 23. The ceiling on Spieth’s career was seemingly in the clouds, but what happened next was something no one saw coming: He stopped winning. 

Spieth wouldn’t win another event that year. In the 2018 season, he would have some close calls — including a third-place finish at Augusta — but no new hardware in the trophy case. 2019 was even worse. 2020 was a disaster.1 From January to December, Spieth failed to crack the top five in any event and missed the cut six times, including an embarrassing U.S. Open in which he shot an 81 on Friday and finished two rounds at +14. When he played the rescheduled Masters in November, Spieth was a 70-1 longshot in Las Vegas. Golf’s golden boy had become an afterthought. 

But less than five months later, as we head into the 2021 Masters, that all feels like a bad dream for Spieth. After stumbling out of the gate this year with a missed cut at Torrey Pines, Spieth notched top-five finishes in Phoenix, at Pebble Beach and at Bay Hill. He officially snapped his slump in earnest with a win Sunday at the Valero Texas Open, playing in front of his home-state fans. His odds to win the Masters this weekend are now at 11-1, tied for the third-shortest behind Bryson DeChambeau and reigning champion Dustin Johnson. Spieth sits at No. 38 in the world after cratering to 92nd in the rankings at the end of January

So it’s now undeniable: Spieth is back. But how back? Has his game fully returned to the levels we saw from 2015 through 2017? Or is this more of a luck-fueled smoke screen from a player with an unusual skill set? 

The 2020-21 stats on the surface paint the picture of a decent-but-not-great golfer who is not particularly amazing at any one thing: Using the strokes gained metric,2 he currently ranks 35th in strokes gained tee-to-green (.758 strokes per round), 23rd in strokes gained off his approach shots (.557 strokes per round), 44th in strokes gained putting (.418 per round) and 151st in strokes gained off-the-tee (-.204 strokes per round). But because of the oddities of the PGA Tour season, the 2021 numbers track 38 measured rounds for Spieth beginning in September 2020 — a time when Spieth was still lost in the wilderness. If you isolate Spieth’s performance since February — which excludes his one missed cut at Torrey Pines in late January — things begin to look a lot more like what we saw in that 2015-17 heyday.

Spieth is reclaiming his winning form

Strokes gained stats and wins for Jordan Spieth by season, 2014-21

Strokes Gained/Round
Season Off Tee Tee-to-Green Putting Wins
2014 +0.03
+0.58
+0.40
0
2015 +0.49
+1.58
+0.57
5
2016 +0.40
+0.81
+0.76
2
2017 +0.32
+1.65
+0.28
3
2018 +0.27
+0.86
-0.03
0
2019 -0.45
-0.40
+0.86
0
2020 -0.28
+0.13
+0.00
0
2021 (pre-Jan.) -0.47
-0.38
+0.55
0
2021 (post-Jan.) -0.03
+1.63
+0.65
1

Source: PGA TOUR

Spieth’s iron play and his work around the green has always been his greatest asset, and that aspect of his game has returned to elite form. Since his breakthrough in Phoenix in February, he is averaging +1.63 strokes gained tee-to-green per round, which actually surpasses the numbers he posted in this metric in 2015 and 2016 and is just a hair behind 2017. And previous research shows that players who perform well in strokes gained tee-to-green tend to find themselves getting fitted for green jackets.

The tee box is still a bit of an adventure for Spieth (case in point: whatever this was). He’s gotten a little better off the tee since February — as in, he isn’t actively costing himself about a half stroke per round with the driver like he was in September through January. But it’s still not a part of his game that’s doing him many favors. Then again, driving the ball far and straight has never been Spieth’s thing. Even in 2015 — when he reached World No. 1, won two majors and the FedEx Cup — he averaged only 0.494 strokes per round off the tee (15th best on the Tour that year). When he won the British Open in 2017, Spieth had to overcome an egregious tee shot on the 13th hole that could have cost him the tournament. That’s his game: Get into trouble on the first shot, put yourself in an awkward spot, play incredible from there on out. This makes Spieth a bit of a unicorn in 2021, a time when the elite players are hitting the ball farther than ever. By comparison, human protein shake DeChambeau is averaging a whopping 1.144 strokes gained per round with the big stick this season, and fellow Masters favorites Jon Rahm and Rory McIlory also rank within the top five

The good news for Spieth is that Augusta National is a course that traditionally favors those with elite iron play. The wide fairways are forgiving to players who have trouble keeping it straight on the first shot (cough, Tiger), and the difficult greens put more of a premium on the approach shots. Perhaps this is why Spieth has been absolutely incredible here. He’s played 28 rounds at Augusta and 17 of them have been under par, with an average score of 70.46 — that’s the best in tournament history. According to PGATour.com, Spieth’s +2.41 strokes gained per round is the second best ever among the 558 players with at least 10 rounds at the Masters. Only Ben Hogan is better, which means Spieth has been better on this course than Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. He already has a green jacket at age 27, but he really could have three. His 2015 win was sandwiched by a pair of heartbreaking close calls: In 2014, he held a two-shot lead through seven holes on Sunday before back-to-back bogeys gave way to Bubba Watson, and in 2016, well, we don’t need to get into 2016

This track record at Augusta and Spieth’s revitalized form explains why he is taking a lot of money with the bookmakers. But does that make it a good bet? There are some reasons for skepticism. Spieth’s best weapon this season — across the full 2020-21 slate — has been his ability to bomb the long putt. Using strokes gained again, only two players have been better from 25-plus feet.

Spieth built his putting rank on making long putts

Putting strokes gained ranking and accuracy on long (25-plus-feet) putts for 2021 PGA Tour players

25+ foot putts
PLAYER Putting Rank* ATTEMPTed Made % MADE Made vs. Avg
J.T. Poston 6 198 22 11.1% +11.33
Rory Sabbatini 47 188 21 11.2 +10.87
Jordan Spieth 44 151 16 10.6 +7.87
Hunter Mahan 40 97 13 13.4 +7.77
Russell Henley 49 179 17 9.5 +7.36
Scott Brown 115 121 13 10.7 +6.47
James Hahn 41 162 15 9.3 +6.27
Will Gordon 77 197 16 8.1 +5.38
Webb Simpson 13 160 14 8.8 +5.38
Sungjae Im 27 291 21 7.2 +5.33

*According to strokes gained putting.

Source: PGA TOUR

Although Spieth has always had a knack for hitting the dramatic long putt, this is not something that feels sustainable. While Spieth ranks eighth in success rate on putts of 25 feet or longer (10.6 percent), he ranks 100th on putts of 20 to 25 feet (13.0 percent), 26th on putts of 15 to 20 feet (25.8 percent), 176th on putts of 10 to 15 feet (25.2 percent) and 76th on putts inside of 10 feet (87.9 percent). Clearly his long putting is the outlier this season. He’s also had some fortune when not on the green. Spieth already has 12 hole outs this year,3 including this beauty at Pebble Beach, and that number is tied with or more than all but four players this season. It’s exciting to watch but likely not something to count on continuing. 

While it was nice to see Spieth win at the Valero Open, we should remember that it was the Valero Open. The field last weekend was not exactly star-caliber — only seven of the top 50 players in the world played, and no one from the top 10 and only one from the top 20 (Tony Finau) were present. This explains why Spieth was fighting off Charley Hoffman on Sunday (no offense, Charley) and not someone more imposing. When Spieth was in contention going into Sunday against stronger fields at the Waste Management Open and Arnold Palmer Invitational, he faltered, shooting above par in each and eventually losing to majors winners Brooks Koepka and DeChambeau.

But there’s no reason to throw more shade on what’s been a great story for golf. Most importantly, Spieth is also healthy, both physically and mentally. Just this year, it was reported that Spieth had been laboring through a previously undisclosed bone chip in his hand that was affecting his grip. This culminated in him refusing to pick up a club for the month of December in an effort to clear his head and heal his hand. It worked. If he can ride his hot streak through this weekend, golf fans will be treated to yet another dramatic Masters comeback.  

Footnotes

  1. For Spieth’s golf and the rest of humanity.

  2. Which uses ShotLink data to measure how much each shot adds to, or subtracts from, golfers’ scores (relative to the field average) by assessing how it improved their chances of holing out earlier on a given hole. So if you hit a great drive that improves your expected score on a particular hole, your drive will have positive value in strokes gained.

  3. Hole outs are defined as anything that goes in from outside the green or fringe.

Geoff Foster is the former sports editor of FiveThirtyEight.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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