Not too long ago, pundits and golfers alike were awestruck by the meteoric rise of Jordan Spieth. The charismatic Texan, who claimed three major championships before he turned 24, ostensibly was en route to perhaps the greatest professional golfing career ever recorded. A fresh-faced kid — who in 2015 confessed to never having heard of the “The Price is Right” — was conquering golf.
“Take any field — finance, marketing, other sports, whatever — and few, if any, can boast as impressive of professional achievements as Spieth can in golf,” read a July 2017 article on the official PGA website.
Spieth has regressed considerably this season, however. Sure, he made a valiant charge on the final day of the Masters in April. But he has as many missed cuts as top-10 finishes on the season and hasn’t ranked in the top 20 at any event over the past two months. With the U.S. Open scheduled to begin Thursday on Long Island in New York, it’s worth noting that at this juncture in each of the past three seasons, Spieth had claimed at least one victory on tour. This season, he has finished no higher than third at any of the 15 events in which he’s played.
That diminished success can be traced to a singular element of Spieth’s game: putting. Perhaps no player on tour has put forth a better Happy Gilmore impression this season than Spieth, who has imploded on the greens.
Consider, for example, Spieth’s infamous final-hole performance at the Players Championship last month. After lacing his tee shot into the water, Spieth managed to land his approach shot within 5 feet of the cup. Rather than drain a shot that tour players are making more than 81 percent of the time this season, Spieth three-putted. The quadruple bogey dropped him from tied for 17th to tied for 41st.
A week later, Spieth missed a 1-foot putt at the AT&T Byron Nelson tournament. “You’ve got to be joking” was the reaction from one broadcaster.
As the season whirls into its second half, the yips haven’t subsided for Spieth on the green, where he ranks 190th out of 205 qualified players in strokes gained with the putter, a metric that measures each shot a player takes based on how much it reduces his expected score on a given hole, relative to the field average. Considering that Spieth ranked no worse than 42nd in the metric in each season from 2014 to 2017, even ranking in the top 10 in 2015 and 2016, this precipitous decline is perplexing.
Spieth doesn’t discriminate, either; he misses putts of all lengths. He ranks outside the top 140 in putts inside of 5 feet, putts from 5 to 10 feet, putts from 10 to 15 feet, putts from 15 to 20 feet and putts from 20 to 25 feet. On putts exceeding 25 feet, Spieth ranks a cool 91st.
These marks are made starker by the fact that he’s still performing at an incredibly high level in other areas of his game. It’s as though Kyle Korver suddenly forgot how to shoot free throws but the rest of his arsenal was left intact. Spieth ranks in the top 20 in strokes gained off the tee, strokes gained on shots approaching the green, strokes gained on shots around the green and strokes gained tee to green.
|Average strokes gained|
|Year||Off the tee||Approach the green||Within 30 yds. of the green||Putting||Overall|
In other words, up until his caddie, Michael Greller, pulls his Scotty Cameron Circle T 009 from the bag, Spieth is generally where he has been in recent years: ahead of the field. Only then, however, does Spieth transform into Judge Elihu Smails.
“Everyone goes through peaks and valleys of results in any part of your game, and I just got a little off in setup (with the putter),” Spieth said this week. “I’m really starting to bring it back now. It feels very good.”
Top golfers often get put into two categories: those who win with the putter and those who win despite the putter. But a closer look at the numbers reveals that it’s not unusual for putting performance among top golfers to be inconsistent year to year. Take Phil Mickelson: He ranked between 40th and 70th on the PGA Tour in strokes gained putting from 2005 to 2008, fell to between 130th and 145th for the next three seasons, and then stormed back, ranking 11th in 2012 and tied for 5th in 2013. This season, Mickelson ranks second, behind only Jason Day. So it’s possible Spieth could get it back quickly.
One can only hope. With so few scoring opportunities this weekend at wind-swept Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, in Southampton, N.Y. — there are only two par-5s and numerous unreasonably long holes on the 7,445-yard course, which boasts undulating, relentless greens — putting will no doubt be crucial. Since the turn of the century, no major has a higher average score to par than the U.S. Open.
And if Spieth wants to start winning again, he’ll need to correct his putting problems. A strong showing at Shinnecock Hills, one of the toughest courses out there, would go a long way for his confidence — and for his fans.