CROMWELL, Conn. – Despite the occasional internal pep talk, like on the 12th hole Thursday at the Travelers Championship when he sent his approach over the green, Jordan Spieth is among the most cerebral players in the game.
For all the talk of rediscovering that magical feel with his putter in recent weeks, he’s arrived at this competitive crossroads only after extensive study and plenty of science.
For a part of the game that’s so often based on such nuanced elements, Spieth can tell you with a great amount of certainty what needs to happen to putt his best. He can tell you because his swing coach Cameron McCormick told him.
“[McCormick] has got all the logs, videos and SAM Putting Lab System information from my best to my worst weeks and everywhere in between,” Spieth said at TPC River Highlands. “We've charted it down.”
Spieth knows, for example, that regardless of the path of the stroke or the rotation of the putter head, he’s at his best when his action is more consistent, 95 percent or better consistency to be exact.
He can tell you his conversion rate from 10 feet is 55.5 percent, which is 10th on the PGA Tour, and his putting average (1.716) ranks third – which are both telling statistics considering how much of the narrative in recent weeks has focused on Spieth’s perceived putting woes.
He’s thought all this through and is comfortable with the plan he and McCormick have devised. And he will tell you that none of that matters, or at least it shouldn’t matter, right now.
For Spieth, the time for science is over.
“I've been trying to make my stroke perfect with the perfect consistency, and there is really no point,” he said. “If you're looking at a spot and you set up and you know you're set up there and you can consistently hit it there, then it doesn't really matter what the stroke looked like.”
On Thursday at TPC River Highlands, Spieth seemed fully vested in function over form.
Spieth began his day by rolling in birdie putts of 15, 2 and 6 feet at Nos. 1, 2 and 4. He charged in a 22-footer for birdie at the seventh, a 9-footer at the eighth and closed his day with a sliding 4-footer at the last for a 7-under 63 and a one-stroke lead.
All total, Spieth converted 105 feet of putts on Day 1 and gained 1.83 shots on the field according to the strokes-gained putting statistic, which is a full shot and a half better than his season average.
On Wednesday, Spieth mused that “it only takes one or two events in a row before we're right back on track,” and Thursday’s commanding performance looked very much like a sea change, right?
“I'd call it halfway [to where he wants to be],” said Spieth following his lowest opening round of the season. “There's still a level of discomfort, but it's certainly moving in the right direction.”
If Spieth’s cautious optimism seemed a bit conservative, he’s come by it honestly. On Wednesday, he said he’s only had what he would consider two “solid” putting rounds this season and he’s only five weeks removed from what may well turn out to be rock bottom in this quest to regain his putting prowess.
At last month’s AT&T Byron Nelson, he surprised the golf world when he benched his trusty Scotty Cameron putter for a new model. That experiment only lasted a week following back-to-back missed cuts, and he returned to his old putter on his way to a runner-up finish at the Dean & DeLuca Invitational. He followed that with a tie for 13th at the Memorial, but the turning point may well have been a relatively meaningless Sunday at last week’s U.S. Open.
Sixteen strokes off the pace to begin the final round at Erin Hills, Spieth played in the worse of Sunday’s winds on his way to a 69 that he said felt like a 65.
“It really didn't matter much, and I thought that was a round just like today,” said Spieth, who tied for 35th last week. “I thought I played as well or even better in that round than I did today, and that kind of showed me that things are where I think they are.”
For all the science and studies, the most contemplative of competitors realized there also needs to be some magic in his method, an unquantifiable element that can’t be forced or manufactured.
“If I hit 15 greens, I have to make a couple of them,” Spieth reasoned. “You roll the ball near the hole that many times, if it's luck, one of them is going to bounce in. Or you just believe that's a good stroke, and the hole starts to look bigger.”
For his last 36 holes Spieth has found that magic, not some measured matrix, that had been missing from his game. It’s a good start, but he would be the first to realize that it’s just the start.