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The past behind him? Grand opportunity awaits for Spieth

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FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – Wednesday morning, Jordan Spieth was sitting in front of a room full of reporters, addressing a variety of queries ahead of the PGA Championship, when he reached for the reset button.

“As you’re in this bit of a slump…” began one question.

“Was,” Spieth quickly corrected into the microphone, a not-so-subtle attempt to declare that the worst is behind him.

When it comes to the fickle space between a player’s ears, especially one as cerebral as the three-time major champ, it’s sometimes a battle between chicken and egg. Spieth’s roaring highs and near-Grand Slam bid of 2015 were fueled in large part by results begetting results. The same trend has worked against him in recent months, as the former world No. 1 arrived at Bethpage ranked No. 39 and nine months removed from his last brush with contention.

Devoid of both confidence and results, each aspect has made it harder to get the other one turned in the right direction.

So while part of Spieth’s curt reply was surely rooted in truth, his recent play showing brief glimmers of his previous form, it may very well have been a situation where he sought to turn hope into a fact simply by speaking it into existence.

There’s no secret rubric to sparking a turnaround, even when you’ve summited the sport. Some can flip the switch after a matter of weeks, while for others the wait is much longer. Sometimes decorated champions never get it back. Players are issued a one-way ticket toward the abyss, equipped only with the self-belief that eventually the talent that once lifted them to lofty heights will re-appear.

“When things are going right for you, you’re out there playing like you shoot 70 and you’re signing for 68,” said three-time major champ Padraig Harrington. “And when things are going wrong, you’re playing like you’re shooting 70 and you’re shooting 72. And literally, there’s four shots between the two rounds and it’s just a hair’s breath of attitude. That’s it.”

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That breath has been blowing against Spieth in recent months, with the one-time prodigy relegated to also-ran status after going nearly two years without a win.

The same lofty trophy totals that were trotted out this week by defending champ Brooks Koepka were largely believed to be in play for Spieth when he left Royal Birkdale with the claret jug at age 23. Slowly but surely, mistakes he once concealed caught up to him. No longer could a red-hot putter salvage errant rounds, and issues with iron play eventually bled into his longer clubs.

“It was far enough off to make it pretty difficult, especially to trust it in certain situations in majors,” Spieth said. “It’s just harder on the tees to sit there and fully trust it.”

Spieth has professed proximity to the answer for weeks, leaning on his good rounds while downplaying the miscues. Last week at the AT&T Byron Nelson, he faded on Sunday and quickly attributed it to a rash decision to experiment with his ball flight off the tee – one that, in hindsight he regretted. But it allowed him to view a T-29 finish against a mediocre field as a step in the right direction.

“You’re never as far off as people think you are,” said Keegan Bradley, who fell to 120th in the world two years ago before returning to the top 30. “The scores, the finishes may not look as good, but when you’re working toward a goal and working toward getting better, there’s certain small things that can happen out there that you can take, and they build and build. And the next thing you know, you win or you do well.”

Spieth appears to be approaching the latter half of that equation this week on the Black Course, where a second-round 66 moved him to 5 under and behind only Koepka when he signed his scorecard. Afterwards he hopped in a cart and returned to the media center to face another round of questions, reiterating that the noise surrounding his results – or lack thereof – is easily dismissed.

“I don’t actually look at what any of the experts say,” Spieth said. “I believe in our team enough to know that we’re working on the right things.”

But for a player who once seemed on pace to challenge the record books and has since receded to the pack while other players have taken top billing, sometimes that’s easier said than done.

“There’s no doubt the outside world has got in his head,” Harrington said. “Everybody will ask the question and he’ll answer the question, or he’ll bring it up, whatever. It’s difficult at the end of the day. Jordan is the only one who can know what’s happening in his world, and he’s got to try to distance himself and try to go about his business. Not be trying to use everything as a staging point, or a stepping stone or anything like that.”

To his credit, Spieth is open about the fact that he remains a work in progress. After clinging to a single swing thought during the summer of 2017, when he won The Open while ranking second on Tour in total strokes gained, he’s still having to focus on a number of keys to keep the train on the tracks each time he takes the club back. Having once flourished on autopilot while leaving his peers in his dust, Spieth is still very much in manual override mode as he looks to return to his previous heights.

“I’m 100 percent not hitting it as well as I did a couple years ago,” he said. “But I’m hitting it a lot better than I did the end of last year, beginning of this year.”

A tantalizing opportunity awaits, as Spieth can silence the naysayers while challenging for the final leg of the career Grand Slam at the same time. But in a season still without a top-20 result, the issue has never been turning in one or two good rounds. It’s been an inability to avert a crippling outlier.

He’ll try to do so this weekend, navigating a treacherous layout in hopes of proving that the slump that slowed him is, in fact, a thing of the past. And all the while, the world will be watching.

“It’s easier if he was left to go about his business,” Harrington said. “But then again, he wouldn’t be paid the big bucks if that was the case. He’d be out playing on some mini-tour.”