Hawk's Nest: Spieth has distance to go to be great


A day or two prior to the start of the 2004 Bay Hill Invitational, I was given the opportunity to play nearby Isleworth G&CC with PGA Tour veteran John Cook. This was shortly after a course redesign had made Isleworth much longer and tougher, but I was up for the challenge of playing it from the tips.

My game was in excellent shape. I was driving the ball wonderfully. Heck, I was even thinking I’d knock it past Cookie, a very straight hitter who certainly wasn’t long by tour-pro standards. So what if it was 7,500 yards from the Tiger Tees? Just a number on the scorecard, pal.

Some morons learn faster than others. Cook shot 69 and might have missed one fairway by three yards. I fired a nice little 90-something and spent the afternoon at least 30 yards behind him. We basically played two different courses that day, and mine wasn’t really playable. He’d hit 7-irons into greens where I had hybrids. He’d tap in for par while I fought to avoid double-bogey.

This exercise in humility came with a reminder: hitting the ball a long way makes life much easier. At the game’s highest level, almost every great player has been one of the era’s longest drivers. In short, length is a requisite to premium success.

WHICH BRINGS US to Jordan Spieth, who has terminated any discussion as to the identity of America’s best young golfer. To do what Spieth has done over the last 10 months – on courses he had hardly played or never seen at all – is very rare. The kid seems to live on a leader board, although his inability to close the deal has become a valid discussion point.

“Plenty of chances to win, and it’s eating at me a little that I haven’t taken advantage of them yet,” Spieth said in his pre-tournament news conference at The Players. “The Masters was a humbling experience, not being able to pull that off.”

We can talk about how he’s just 20 years old and pass off his Sunday stumbles as a scourge of youth. We can look at other top-tier guys who have done nothing in 2014 and rationalize that faltering late is better than not contending at all. Perception is derived through context, however, and with each missed opportunity to claim a second Tour victory, Spieth’s halo loses some of its glow.

Fact: The Texan’s lone win came against a relatively weak field last summer at the John Deere Classic.

Opinion: His ability to perform under playoff pressure was quite admirable, but if all the big boys had shown up, who knows? He might have finished T-6.

Fact: Spieth entered The Players ranked 111th in driving distance. He finished 80th on the Tour in 2013.

Opinion: Great players are long hitters, and Spieth needs to get longer. His head-to-head matchup against Bubba Watson at the Masters might be an unfair comparison, as Bubba obviously belts it a mile, but quality length is a commodity that travels everywhere. Shorter irons into greens lead to shorter birdie putts.

Fact: The kid ranks 153rd in putting from 20 to 25 feet – and 183rd in putting from beyond that distance.

Opinion: Numbers don’t lie, but they can be misleading, although Spieth’s statistical profile reveals some plain truth. Players of average distance who rank 142nd in driving accuracy must be superb long-range putters to win tournaments. As good as Spieth has been, there is a ton of room for improvement.

He knows it. The clarity of his perspective is one of his many great assets. Most of Spieth’s strengths are things you can’t really teach.

“You guys [media] catch me five minutes after a round and it’s hard – I’m not mature enough to be extremely positive,” he admitted Sunday night. “I will be in about an hour, but right now, it just really, really stings.”

NOBODY HAS GOTTEN more out of his putter in recent years than Brandt Snedeker. From early 2011 to the summer of 2013, he won five times in a 27-month stretch while ranking 10th, first and fourth in strokes gained per round. Snedeker won the ’12 FedEx Cup sweepstakes not because he finished 134th in total driving or 132nd in GIR, but because he was among the Tour leaders in holing putts from almost every measured distance.

Things have been very different in 2014. Sneds’ scoring average has risen a whopping 2.12 strokes despite his driving the ball straighter than in any season since ’09. He’s one of a handful of players making less than half his putts from five to 10 feet – most of the others are guys you haven’t heard of.

He’s 175th in that category and 153rd from 20-25 feet, and it all adds up to a lousy year. Snedeker’s only top 10 in 13 starts came at Bay Hill back in March. A T-48 at TPC Sawgrass is nothing to call mom about, but he shot a 67 Saturday after making a slight adjustment in his putting setup.

“I was lining up the ball too much on the heel,” Snedeker said Saturday. “I moved it out towards the toe and the ball is coming off a lot faster, rolling a lot better and hugging the line better. I’m able to hit some quality putts day in, day out now.”

Perhaps I shouldn’t mention that Snedeker fired a 76 Sunday and didn’t make anything outside 10 feet, but it does provide for a tidy segue into my next item …

FOR THOSE OF you hoping for some fresh blood on this fall’s U.S. Ryder Cup team, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll get what you’re looking for. There are three “rookies” safely inside the top 10: Jimmy Walker, Spieth and Patrick Reed. Phil Mickelson’s continued poor play has knocked him onto the automatic-qualifier bubble, and at this point, it’s hard to imagine Tiger Woods making the team unless Tom Watson gives him a captain’s pick.

Long way to go, sure, but at this point, it wouldn’t be a terrible idea for some of America’s big names to improve their position in the standings. Rickie Fowler, Keegan Bradley and Hunter Mahan are among the notables who need to start playing better – I didn’t include Steve Stricker because he has basically become a part-time player.

Snedeker, meanwhile, entered last week 33rd on the U.S. list. It obviously has been a very strange year to this point, particularly when you think back to where those in the game’s upper echelon stood at the start of the season. Woods picked up five more victories. Mickelson mounted a Sunday charge and won the major he was never supposed to win. Adam Scott underwent a career makeover.

Even Rory McIlroy, for all his struggles, ended the year on a very upbeat note. Five months later, Tiger’s on the shelf. Scott has played consistently well, but all anyone remembers is the big blown lead at Arnie’s House. And Mickelson + McIlroy = Mediocrity.

“I don’t feel bad about my game, but mentally, I’m just really soft right now,” Philly Mick admitted after missing the cut at The Players. “I’m having a hard time focusing on the shot. I’m having a hard time [visualizing] the ball going in the hole.”

Fact: This is by far the deepest Lefty has gotten into a season as a pro without registering a top-10 finish. It’s not even close.

Opinion: The man has Pinehurst on his mind. As elated as he was to win the British Open last summer, it surely led him at some point to chagrin all those missed opportunities at the U.S. Open. He’d have a career Grand Slam by now. At this point, that’s the one thing he’d really, really like to own.