IRVING, Texas – There’s something to be said for scraping it around.
If one didn’t have access to a leaderboard, the comments coming from the top two players at the AT&T Byron Nelson painted a dire picture.
“Very stressful round of golf to play because I just don't have confidence over the ball right now,” seethed Jordan Spieth, utterly uninterested in looking at the silver lining.
“I hit the ball terrible,” Brooks Koepka burned.
That Koepka and Spieth hold down the top two spots on the leaderboard, respectively, did little to soften equally foul moods born from relatively sorry ball-striking days.
Koepka shot 65 to move two strokes clear of Spieth, who grinded out a 67. Just don’t expect either contender to gush with confidence.
Spieth hit just half his fairways on Day 3, 11 of 18 greens in regulation and lost .201 shots to the field in strokes gained-tee to green, whatever that means.
Koepka’s efforts tee-to-green were even grimmer, hitting 8 of 14 fairways, 9 of 18 greens in regulation and averaging 35 feet from the hole on his approach shots.
“It was kind of embarrassing,” Koepka said. “We both kind of hung in there, battled it out and we made some good, good key 10-footers and that's what you got to do out here if you're not hitting it well.”
For Spieth, it’s been a familiar tale this week. The world No. 2 struggled with his swing on his way to a missed cut at last week’s Players and has repeatedly said that he didn’t have his best stuff last month at Augusta National, when he gave up a five-stroke lead with nine holes to play.
At TPC Four Seasons he hit it even worse – his words, not mine.
There’s a lack of execution for both players, which in golf quickly translates into a lack of confidence. For Spieth that manifested itself in a surprisingly sloppy finish.
After pulling within one stroke of Koepka with a birdie at the rowdy 17th hole that ignited the crowd, Spieth teed off with an iron on the final hole. It was an attempt that faded weakly into the right rough, past the massive gallery, past the cart path, past any chance of reaching the green in regulation.
Spieth chipped to 8 feet but missed the par putt, sending him two shots adrift of the lead and into a less-than-stellar mood.
“If you guys knew the kind of stress I felt over the golf ball right now trying to put my swing in the right position,” Spieth said. “It is a challenge, especially with the amount of difficult tee shots out here and trouble that guard at least one side of most of the fairways.”
Still, Spieth embraced the half-full cup that is his game at the moment, taking some solace in the fact that despite his struggles he will tee off in the final group on Sunday.
With both leading men playing defense tee to green, this Byron Nelson has devolved into a putting contest, which should give Spieth some measure of encouragement considering his status as arguably the game’s best clutch putter alongside Jason Day.
“Just about every time Jordan tees it up it has to be a putting contest,” Koepka figured.
The hometown magician rolled in par saving putts at the second, fourth, fifth, eighth and 12th holes and had 11 one-putts on Day 3 at the Nelson.
Koepka may have been even better on the greens on Saturday, which was a surprise considering he’s struggled this year with his putter. But he switched to a new putter last week with a softer face insert and the result has been a dramatic change of fortune.
On Saturday, he needed just 22 putts on his way to a 16-under total and ranks fifth in the field with a 5.56 strokes gained-putting average, which is more than five strokes better than his season average.
“He told me today that he feels like he can hit the ball again with his putter,” said Koepka’s swing coach, Claude Harmon III. “His stats this year were off the charts, but he just wasn’t making the putts he needed to to maintain momentum.”
For Koepka, a power player whose driving is normally his strength, it was the grinding moments that made the difference on Saturday, like at the 15th hole after he’d missed the green right with his approach shot but calmly rolled in a 11 footer for par to maintain his advantage.
All total, Koepka rolled in 105 feet of putts in Round 3 to turn what could have been a meltdown into something manageable.
Spieth could relate, not that there was any shared pain between the two on Saturday. That’s not the way things work on Tour.
“I'm not going to tell him that I'm struggling. That's for sure,” Koepka laughed. “I'm sure he won't tell me. We both kind of knew it.”
The duo also knows they’ll likely need to find some sort of answers before Sunday to avoid a similar scenario, which would explain why Koepka went straight to the practice tee after his round and Spieth said he’d likely spend some time in his simulator at home on Saturday night.
“Normally I’m not in contention without having a go-to ball flight and that's what I'm going to try to get tomorrow,” Spieth said.
Normally the top two players through 54 holes don’t sound like they’ve just been pulled for jury duty either, but then again, this isn’t your normal week on Tour.