ST. LOUIS – A big stretch of the 2017-18 PGA Tour season sits on his immediate horizon, and clearly, Jordan Spieth is not where he wants to be. The three-time major winner, just two weeks beyond celebrating his 25th birthday, hasn’t won in 19 starts this season. In fact, he hasn’t won in more than a year, since the 2017 Open Championship at Royal Birkdale.
As daylight faded after a pedestrian opening-round 71 on Thursday at the 100th PGA Championship, Spieth smashed drivers on the range, trying to shake free from some of his mounting frustrations.
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Back at Bellerive Country Club early Friday, Spieth reminded us all that whatever the shape of his game, his heart is filled with good old, gnarly Texas grit. He’s a fighter. He walked to his first hole of the day, the long and perilous 508-yard 10th, really not knowing what his day had in store. By lunchtime, he had turned in a bogey-free, 4-under 66 that at least will keep him around for the weekend.
And when Spieth still has any kind of chance, well, you just never know.
You want evidence of his will to fight? Spieth hit a tee shot into the creek that runs along the right side of the par-5 17th hole for the second consecutive day. The par-5 17th, even at close to 600 yards, represents the lone breather in Bellerive’s otherwise arduous four-hole closing run, and it's a place to pick up a shot, not give one away. But as soon as Spieth's ball plunked into that creek, he was determined not to surrender. He dropped, laid up to 113 yards, wedged to 6 feet, and ran in the putt to save his par. It kept his scorecard cleaner than a new sedan. Fourteen pars, four birdies and finally, he had a little momentum to take into the weekend.
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“My expectations are lower than they are when I'm in form, certainly last year at this time, and I'm okay with that,” Spieth said. “It's just a process, and I’ve got to be patient with it getting back.”
After the round, he lent some insight into a year that would acceptable for many pros (19 starts, five top 10s, two of them at major championships), but just not very Spieth-like. What has been the issue? He said he applied a temporary fix to his swing leading into The Players that “pushed me further away from what I should have been doing.”
Spieth: “So I spent literally two months nailing in the wrong thing, and I’m trying to climb back out of it.”
Spieth has endured a horrendous year with the putter (he entered the PGA ranked 165th in strokes gained: putting), and as his focus turned to addressing that part of his game, his long game has suffered. The putting questions have been endlessly frustrating for a player who’d spent his first few seasons on Tour building a reputation as one of the best clutch putters out there. Be honest: A year ago, who else would you tab to make a 15-footer with your life on the line?
Spieth needs only the PGA Championship to complete the career grand slam. It’s some significant history that he is chasing, trying to join a small cast of greats who have achieved it: Walter Hagen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.
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Once Spieth settled into a few holes on Friday, he actually could trust what he was doing. Much of his swing flaws have been the result of a flawed setup at address, which in turn leads him to take the club back on an incorrect path. For an world-class player, it hasn’t been much fun standing over shots.
Despite all of this, Spieth has been right there at two majors this season. He came from nowhere to shoot 64 on Sunday at the Masters, a closing round that included a bogey at his last hole. At Carnoustie in the Open last month, he entered Sunday with a share of the lead, then shot 76.
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He really didn’t know what he’d have on Friday. Would he struggle again and go home, as he did at the U.S. Open (78-71)? Or would his steely determination lead him to find something, anything, to hold onto and build upon. Fortunately for him, it was the latter. One day after hitting eight fairways and 10 greens, he hit 10 fairways and 15 greens. Mix in 29 putts, and it makes for a nice 66.
When play was suspended by storms on Friday afternoon, Spieth sat seven shots behind red-hot leader Gary Woodland (64-66). But at least now he’ll have the weekend to keep on grinding. That’s important given the important golf that Spieth has left on his calendar this season, with one major weekend, four (hopefully) FedEx Cup Playoff events, and a Ryder Cup in Paris.
“It was a lot of progress,” Spieth said of his effort. “I wasn’t sure going into the first tee – I thought anything could happen today.”
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