SOUTHPORT, England – Chomping away on a stale piece of gum, Jordan Spieth could have been excused for swallowing it whole as he sized up his nasty lie on the downslope of a bunker on the 16th hole.
Spieth laid open the face of his lob wedge and swung hard, splashing out to 15 feet. Just like the ol’ days, he coolly rolled in the putt to keep his bogey-free round alive and finish at 5-under 65, in a tie for the early lead with U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka and Matt Kuchar.
“It was the best shot of the day,” Spieth said, “no doubt about it.”
And it was the only time all day that he stressed for par.
Though the remaining of his career will always be compared to what he accomplished in 2015, there are parts of Spieth’s game that – gulp – have never been better.
More dedicated in the gym and the kitchen, he and swing coach Cameron McCormick have been able to work around Spieth’s fitter body and tighten up his misses. As a result, he is ranked first in strokes gained-approach the green, third in proximity to the hole and fifth in greens in regulation. Put simply, he’s been the best iron player on Tour this season, leading to two wins (and likely a few more).
This might be difficult for some to wrap their minds around. For whatever reason, Spieth is the player fans love to knock. If there’s been one constant (and unfair) criticism throughout his career, it’s that he’s nothing more than an average ball-striker and sublime putter. That he can’t keep up with the likes of DJ and Rory and Hideki. That he can’t – and won’t – make those birdie bombs forever, and then he’ll struggle.
Those assumptions have been obliterated this year.
“I’ve struck the ball better than I did in ’15,” he said of his epic season in which, at age 22, he won two majors and came within four shots of winning the others.
“I’ve actually been in better position. If you took hole by hole, I’ve been in a better position tee to green than I was that year. If I putted the same as ’15, I’d be having a better year right now.”
Fortunately for Spieth, iron play is the most important aspect this week at Royal Birkdale. Most players are approaching this famed links cautiously, with irons and 3-woods off the tee to avoid the numerous cross bunkers. And so, with nearly everyone in the 156-man field playing from the same positions, Spieth enjoys a massive advantage.
That was clear Thursday at The Open, when he putted for birdie on all but two holes and, on the rare occasions he missed the green, such as the 16th, he was able to rely on his world-class short game and defrosting putter. And it might be even more apparent Friday, when the wind is expected to howl and ball control will be at a premium.
“You need to have confidence in each ball flight and trajectory,” Spieth said, “because you have to hit them all in a tournament like this.”
McCormick deserves an assist for Spieth’s 65. On Thursday morning, he brought out a TrackMan for the first time before a tournament round. The coach wanted to see how the ball was reacting in 55-degree weather compared to hot, humid Dallas, and the answer was Spieth was flying his irons about 25 yards shorter into the wind.
With that knowledge, his distance control was impeccable for much of the day.
“I was just trying to keep up with him,” said Henrik Stenson, who shot 69. “He was putting beautifully. I played with him in 2015 when he won his green jacket, and he was rolling it superbly that week, and I don’t think it was that far behind today. He made a lot of good putts out there.”
Which is true … because Spieth was in the proper position to attack. The quality of his iron play still gets overlooked.
Spieth missed a 6-footer on the last that would have pushed him one clear, at 6 under, and walking up the hill behind the 18th green he clapped his hands in frustration. It was one of a few makeable putts that could have elevated this round from “a 9 across the board” to one of the best he’s ever played. Those near-misses have been a familiar refrain for Spieth, who is 36th in putting this season – his worst ranking since his rookie year, but no reason to sound the alarms, either.
“It’s been the one thing that’s been off this year,” he said. “My ball-striking has been better than in any year that I’ve ever played golf. It’s been about capitalizing, which is frustrating, considering I’m used to seeing the ball go in.”
But now Spieth doesn’t need to be a lights-out putter to win. He doesn’t need to drain 33 percent of his 25-footers. He doesn’t need to mask the other deficiencies in his game.
All around, he’s a better player – and that’s a terrifying thought for the rest of the field.