KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. – You might have thought Jordan Spieth was back when he shot that scorching 61 in Phoenix. Or maybe it was when he took the 54-hole lead a week later at Pebble Beach. Or perhaps he was only back – really, truly, officially back – when he finally ended his winless drought in San Antonio.
Will Zalatoris didn’t point to any of those moments.
“I think probably three or four months ago is when he started doing Jordan things again,” Zalatoris said.
They were playing a team match at Dallas National. On the par-3 13th, Spieth hooked his tee shot left of the cart path. Dead. “We’ve got this in the bag,” Zalatoris recalling thinking, and that’s when Spieth’s chip shot skipped through the rough, checked on the hill and “then basically just goes Mach 3 and slams into the back of the hole.”
Then Spieth followed it up on the next hole the only way he knows how – with a 40-footer.
“That was when I knew,” Zalatoris said, “OK, he’s back.”
There’s little doubt now, of course, now that Spieth snapped the winless drought, now that he contended in several other events and now that he returns to the PGA Championship as one of the pre-tournament favorites. Much as he has for the past decade, Zalatoris grabbed a front-row seat to the Spieth Show last week in their hometown event (Spieth tied for ninth at the Byron Nelson) and will again here at Kiawah Island, where they’ll be grouped for the first two rounds alongside Webb Simpson. By the end of the week they might have been witnesses to history, as Spieth is looking to become the sixth player to complete the career Grand Slam.
Imagine that being a realistic possibility at the beginning of the year, when Spieth was as lost as ever, with a world ranking tumbling toward 100.
Asked about his turning point this year, Spieth didn’t mention his theatrics against Zalatoris but rather the practice-range progress he made in early February.
“It was a progression of finding some feels that allowed me to stand comfortably over the ball and hit a shot under pressure,” he said, “and then doing that for multiple days in a row, then having that happen a couple tournaments in a row.
“Back to that Phoenix-Pebble timeframe is where I thought, Man, I know it’s not where I want it to be, but it doesn’t need to be for me to at least tap in how to contend out here.”
The improvement has been swift and significant.
His world ranking has improved from 92nd to 26th.
His strokes gained: off-the-tee statistics have jumped from 219th to 143rd (with positive strokes gained five of the last six events).
His SG: approach numbers have climbed from 204th to 16th.
And where it matters most, scoring average, he has rocketed from 183rd to 32nd.
Fair or not, Spieth will always be compared to what he accomplished in 2015, when he won a pair of majors and contended deep into two others. But a better measure of him as a player is how he performed in 2017, when he won three times, owned a better scoring average than in ’15 and ranked second on Tour in strokes gained: total. That’s the type of consistent excellence he seeks again, but there’s a potential for him to be even better – with a greater knowledge of his swing and a deeper appreciation for his journey.
“I’m at this point measuring myself off feels and freedom, playing from a position of where I feel comfortable stepping over this shot,” he said. “I’m embracing this long iron into a green under pressure versus, Oh, shoot, where is this thing going to go?”
That’s a common question asked this week at Kiawah’s treacherous Ocean Course, which is hosting a major for just the second time, and the first since 2012. That year Spieth was competing in the U.S. Amateur, about to commit to just one more semester at Texas before turning pro. He watched on TV but didn’t remember much, other than Rory McIlroy’s runaway score and his celebration on the 72nd hole.
When he spoke to the media at noon ET Tuesday, Spieth couldn’t even offer an assessment of the course. Inclement weather Sunday in Texas delayed his arrival into South Carolina. He managed only a 90-minute warmup session Monday and knew that there was much prep work ahead. The prospects of the Slam, he said, won’t creep into his mind until the weekend.
“I feel like I’ll have a lot of chances at this tournament,” he said, “and if I just focus on trying to take advantage of this golf course, play it the best I can and stay in the same form tee to green I’ve been in, all I can ask for is a chance.”
And usually that’s all it takes for him to summon some more Jordan magic.