SILVIS, Ill. – Jordan Spieth stood in the trees left of the 17th fairway and didn’t really care for his options.
“I didn’t like that opening, the punch-out opening,” he said. “There really weren’t many places to go unless I went backwards.”
That’s when his eyes started wandering left, through the trees and in the direction of the 18th hole.
And that’s when Spieth and his caddie Michael Greller had something very much resembling a Phil Mickelson-Jim Mackay conversation.
“He’s trained to say punch out, work for par, go on to the next,” Spieth said.
Instead, the 21-year-old, two-time major winner picked his spot, told Greller, “Trust me,” and navigated a 5-iron 200 yards through a narrow gap in the trees, over a bunker, and back into the 17th fairway.
“It wasn’t a big window at all that it went through,” he said. “It climbed right up over the tree and split the other two. After I hit it and it got through there, I gave Mike the little fist pump, because it could have gone very poorly if it didn’t come out the way I wanted it to.”
Spieth left himself 106 yards to a tucked-right pin. He pulled a sand wedge – that he will tell you was “the wrong club” – made impact, mis-hit it, put too much spin on it, followed through with a displeased one-handed release, flew it about 10 feet past the pin, and …
… Made it.
Spieth, who five minutes beforehand was surveying potential chip-outs with his caddie, holed out from the fairway at 17 for an eagle-3 that gave him sole possession of the lead.
It was the highlight of a birdie-eagle-birdie finish that secured him the lowest round of his PGA Tour career, a 10-under 61 that has him two shots clear of the field at 17 under par heading into Sunday’s final round at the John Deere Classic.
Even after the eagle, Spieth needed one more birdie to set his new personal best, a fact he was plenty aware of standing over an 18-footer on his final hole.
“I had that fist pump on the last, because walking up after the second shot, I said, ‘Mike, I just saw the board and I think this for the lowest round I’ve shot on the PGA Tour.’ And I said, ‘That’s pretty cool.’
“And he said, ‘It doesn’t matter where you’re at. Just keep on trekking.’
“I said, ‘Yeah, but I appreciate this, and I really want to make this thing.’”
He did. In fact, there weren’t many times he looked at a putt and didn’t make it. Spieth needed just 23 putts in his third round after needing only 25 the day before. One of his rare misses Saturday came at the short par-4 14th, when he missed a 7-footer for birdie and then leaned forward, looking at the ball like there was something wrong with it – which there must have been, considering it didn’t go in.
Since playing his first 12 holes 2 over on Thursday, Spieth has played his last 42 holes 19 under par. Over that stretch, he’s made 14 birdies, three eagles and just one bogey. Saturday marked the first time in his Tour career that he’s recorded two eagles in the same round, with the other one coming after a 260-yard 3-wood at the second hole stopped 2 feet from the cup. It also marked the second straight day he’s played a three-hole stretch in 4 under par, after a birdie-birdie-eagle run on Nos. 18-2 Friday.
All this from a guy who after an even-par 71 in Round 1 spent the bulk of his time complaining about his short game and chastising himself for playing nothing more than a Wednesday pro-am in the weeks following his win at the U.S. Open. Two days after “a little rusty start,” he’s one-handing wedges past the hole, off the flagstick, and underground.
“A shot that was mis-hit,” he called his sand wedge at 17. “Not extremely mis-hit. I pull off one-handed even if I don’t miss by a lot. I probably should watch out for that, because it looked bad, because the shot looked pretty good in the air.”
The only things he has left to criticize at this point are his body language and his driver, which did its best to get him into trouble over his last four holes. Spieth’s last three drives were fore right, fore left and fore right. He played those holes 3 under par, thanks in part to missing the fairway so badly off the 15th tee that his ball came to rest behind a scoreboard between the 15th and 17th holes, allowing him a free drop.
“It’s been the concern as I’ve come back from this stretch,” he said, referring to his driver, before quickly correcting himself. “I wouldn’t call it a concern. I’d call it just – it’s the one club in my bag I need to fine-tune the most.”
Spieth is so fine-tuned with his other clubs that he actually damaged the hole at the par-4 eighth after his approach with a pitching wedge clipped the flagstick on the way down and rolled 24 feet away.
“I mean, it happens to everybody ,” he said. “You hit a shot exactly how you want to, and some people wind up in the water.”
He’s not most people. He made the putt for birdie.