FORT WORTH, Texas – Having recently moved out of the Dallas area, Colt Knost spent last week’s AT&T Byron Nelson sharing a house near the course with his friend, Jordan Spieth.
It’s hardly an unusual living arrangement for a tournament week, but it gave Knost an up-close view of the tournament’s biggest draw, who spent much of the week critiquing his play but remaining on the leaderboard all the same.
“I saw him Saturday, and he just said he was really struggling bad with his golf swing,” Knost recalled. “He said how bad he hit it Saturday, and I said, ‘How the hell did you shoot 3 under par then?’”
There, in a microcosm, sits Spieth’s current game – or at least the perception of it.
As he has continued to exit the course while focusing on his flaws, questions have begun to pop up with increasing frequency. What’s wrong with Spieth? What’s holding him back? What’s different this time around?
The answer is perhaps a few little things, but ultimately not much. Contrary to popular belief, the sky is not falling on young Mr. Spieth – a fact that he’s happy to reinforce heading into this week’s Dean & DeLuca Invitational.
“Last year I was, I think, making a few more mid-range putts than I have this year, but overall I feel like I’m still stroking it the same,” Spieth said. “Recently I’ve been trying to get back to the consistency my swing was at last year, so I’d say maybe that’s it. Just a little bit of fine-tuning of the ball-striking, but it’s coming around now.”
The stats bear out Spieth’s assertion. While his iron play has hurt him in recent weeks – he ranks 118th on Tour in greens-in-regulation percentage – Spieth still leads the Tour in birdie average. He’s sixth in scoring average, 10th in total strokes gained, and so on.
His self-described off weeks, like last week in Dallas, still produce quality results. An early exit at The Players Championship, where he missed the cut by a shot, remains his lone result outside the top 20 since March.
Clearly, though, the view of Spieth pivoted on the 12th hole at Augusta National. Had he averted disaster and won a second straight Masters, perhaps a scenario that plays out 99 times out of 100, we’re talking about how his game sets up for another Summer of Spieth, or how he can build momentum heading into Oakmont, eyeing a fourth major title over the last six contested.
Instead, the questions facing him now focus on what went wrong, what still might be going wrong, and whether remnants of his Masters collapse still linger somewhere below the surface.
But much like an M.C. Escher painting, this all boils down to perception. No one was questioning Spieth’s ball-striking stats when he was winning tournaments by the handful last year; likewise, few are lauding him in recent weeks for his ability to keep it together despite ragged iron play or inconsistent putting.
Spieth admitted Wednesday that he has never possessed the towering ball flight that Jason Day displayed two weeks ago at TPC Sawgrass, but that fact hardly keeps him up at night. For him, the goal simply remains to get the ball in the hole as quickly as possible, a notion supported by his season-long statistics which are low on individual component strengths but high on numbers that reflect the end result.
“That’s kind of the strength of mine, is my misses are still in a position where you make par at worst,” he said. “The point is I don’t hit it the highest or the longest, but we plan what shots we hit into the greens on our approaches to have our misses not hurt us.”
“That’s the big difference I see with all the young players now, they’re so much more mature at a young age from a course management side of things,” added Adam Scott. “They manage their game well and understand how they need to, how they can effectively get the ball around the golf course.”
Any reaction to Spieth’s play, of course, is exacerbated by the play of those around him in the world rankings. Since Spieth’s last victory in January, Day has won three times while Rory McIlroy captured a high-profile event last week just hours before Spieth faltered in Dallas.
Recency bias can be a powerful blinder, and it’s likely affecting how we assess the current state of the reigning Player of the Year.
As a result, Spieth is once again poised to face the music this week at Colonial, his third start in as many weeks, knowing a new set of not-so-fresh questions likely awaits him next week at the Memorial.
“I think it’s normal, and it’s tough when it is being asked, and my results aren’t showing,” Spieth said. “I’ve seen both sides of it. Right now, I’m on the side where I’ve given it back, and both of them are coming off wins, and I had a chance to win and didn’t. At this present moment, I feel exactly what the questions that are being asked, I feel the same way, and I feel like I need to work my but off to get back, and I feel like I can.”
Set to tackle a course where he has excelled in the past, perhaps a little extra motivation is all that separates Spieth from a change in perception.