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Spieth says his putting is back; he's just waiting on everything else

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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Missing both ways all morning, Jordan Spieth already had too many thoughts running through his head as he stood over his tee shot on the fifth hole Friday at TPC Sawgrass.

Then he made contact.

A sliced drive into the pond.

Long on problems and short on answers, Spieth walked off the tee box, turned to caddie Michael Greller and groused, “If I had any idea why my swing is off like that, it’d be great. But I don’t.”

Did he take it back correctly?

Was it in the proper position at the top?

Did he err in transition?

Definitive answers will need to come later, after a closer inspection. For now he can only concede this: “It’s a work in progress from my long irons to my woods.”

It’s been tireless and mostly fruitless work for nearly a year now. After a meteoric rise to superstardom, the 25-year-old is now suffering through the worst slump of his career: chasing cuts, fighting two-way misses, compiling ugly stats.

TPC Sawgrass will expose any player’s weaknesses, with myriad hazards on every hole, and right now it’s about the worst possible fit for someone in Spieth’s vulnerable position. On Thursday he made two double bogeys and opened with 76, beating only five players. In the second round, he recorded seven birdies but offset some of them with such inexplicable mistakes that he settled for a 69. He carded just as many birdies over the first two days here as Jim Furyk (11), and yet Spieth is heading home at 1-over 145 while Furyk is 9 under and in one of the final groups.

“I owe that almost all to tee-to-green [play],” Spieth said.

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Slipping to 25th in the world, he has gone 13 consecutive tournaments without a top-10 finish – by far the longest stretch of his gilded career – and hasn’t been better than 35th in eight starts this season.

Entering this week, Spieth sat in the bottom half of every major statistical category – a shocking slip for a player who, at one point in his career, ranked as one of the elite players in every facet of the game:

• He ranked seventh on Tour in strokes gained: off the tee in 2013. Currently, he’s 197th.

• He ranked first on Tour in iron play in 2017. Currently, he’s 116th.

• He ranked seventh on Tour around the green in 2015. Currently, he’s 132nd.

• He ranked second on Tour in putting in 2016. Currently, he’s 114th.

There isn’t a single area, statistically, in which he’s currently excelling.

Spieth became a generational talent on the strength of a high golf IQ, impeccable scoring skills and a scorching-hot putter (especially from 15 to 25 feet), but over the past few years he’s looked increasingly skittish on the greens. Questioned almost every start about the state of his shaky putting, Spieth has logged countless hours on the practice putting green to rediscover his magical stroke – his worn SuperStroke grip is proof of that – and only recently has begun to see the payoff. Over two days here, he missed just twice inside 10 feet and declared himself reborn.  

“The putting is back,” he said. “It’s very close to being top of the world again.”

But Spieth also understands that he can’t win – at Sawgrass, at Augusta, or anywhere else – unless he tightens up his erratic long game, the lingering effects of which appear to have taken a toll.  

A body-language expert would have had a field day watching Spieth this week. Instead of his usual running dialogue with his playing partners, caddie and golf ball, he was subdued and isolated. He usually walked alone, head down, brooding. There were slumped shoulders with bad breaks. Sheepish grins with bad shots. Slapped thighs with bad putts.

His superstar grouping with world No. 3 Brooks Koepka only reinforced the growing divide. During a 20-minute wait on the 11th tee, Spieth seemed antsy, spending much of the time regripping and rehearsing his takeaway or flipping through his yardage book. Koepka oozed a quiet confidence, never so much as taking his hands off his hips. Then Spieth overcooked a 270-yard drive into the left rough; Koepka hammered a drive down the center. Two players, right now, moving in opposite directions.  

Despite ranking 134th out of 141 players in strokes gained: tee to green this week, Spieth dug deep to give himself a chance to make the cut. He was 5 under for the day through 12 holes before an unfathomable mistake on the fourth hole. With just 121 yards to the flag, he got too aggressive, misjudged the wind and one-hopped his gap-wedge approach into the water.

“What are you doing?” he groaned, putting his hands on his knees.

He followed that bogey with the sliced drive into the pond on 5, when the two-way miss reappeared, and dropped another shot on 7, when he couldn’t escape from a fairway bunker.

His rounds of 76-69 marked the ninth time (in 17 chances) this season that he’s had at least a six-shot swing in consecutive rounds.

Not even Spieth had an explanation for that, another question unanswered.

“The toughest part is if everything looks good, but to me it doesn’t feel good,” he said. “On the driving range, everything is top-notch. But it’s about finding that last piece. It’s very close.”

Even if the results suggest he’s still far, far away.