Forget the narrative, Jordan Spieth is playing just as well as he did in 2015
The power of perception is strong, especially at the highest level in an individual sport like golf
I'm going to give you a blind test of three different individual golf seasons, and I want you to tell me which one is better. These aren't meant to be all-inclusive but rather paint with broad strokes a picture of three separate seasons. We'll look at average finish, missed cuts, top 10s and wins. Here we go.
- Season A: 0 Wins | 35% top 10s | 2 MC | 13.7 avg. finish | 100% top 5 at majors
- Season B: 2 Wins | 69% top 10s | 2 MC | 10.5 avg. finish | 100% top 5 at majors
- Season C: 2 Wins | 50% top 10s | 2 MC | 10.7 avg. finish | 100% top 5 at majors
You would likely say that Season A is pretty easily the worst of the three and that the other two are pretty dang similar. If you haven't caught on by now, these are Jordan Spieth's last three seasons. Season A is 2014, Season B is 2015 and Season C is 2016. All three are his cumulative PGA Tour statistics preceding the Memorial Tournament.
The prevailing narrative with Spieth since his Masters meltdown this year has been that he's lost, that he's fumbling about like a man in the desert, trying to find a swing he might have never had and battling mental issues that could be with him for the entirety of his career. The columns and takes have been humorous to me and probably infuriating to him. I'm not even sure Tiger Woods got this much scrutiny at his apex given the ubiquity of media now compared to then.
Even my wife, the most casual of golf fans, asked me on Sunday about how Spieth was able to rebound at the Dean & DeLuca Invitational, where he shot a 30 on the back nine for his second win of the year. There is no rebound, I thought. There was nothing to come back from. He's averaging a top 11 finish on the season. Averaging.
Now let me clarify here. As my colleague Robby Kalland smartly pointed out, there was a sense of mental relief for Spieth to get a win under his belt after the catastrophe at Augusta National. Spieth was the one who brought that up after taking nine putts over the final nine holes for the easy victory at Colonial.
"This is a moment," said Spieth. "This day is a moment that'll go down -- no matter what happens in the next 30 years of my career -- this will be one of the most important days that I've ever had. It's great when you're on top, and it's not fun on the other side of it. But it makes me really enjoy a moment like this even more. It really does.
"Someone [yelled] out from the crowd, 'Remember the Masters, Jordan, remember the Masters.' Whether he was being positive or negative, I'm not sure. ... Either way, there's a little red-ass in me, and it came out on the next few holes."
So these are the mental demons Spieth has put to rest (probably), but in terms of on-course play, Spieth did not and has not gone anywhere for the last two years. He's been exactly the same player and this year has had an almost identical season to his historic campaign in 2015. He had a slightly higher top 10 percentage in 2015, which probably comes down to the handful of times he's finished a stroke or two outside the top 10 this year.
He's also driven it slightly better and putted slightly better in 2016 compared to 2015, while his iron play has fallen off a tad. Before the Memorial last year, Spieth was No. 1 on the PGA Tour in adjusted scoring. He's No. 1 in adjusted scoring this year as well. But what about the narrative?!
And think about this: Danny Willett wasn't even supposed to play the Masters. Do you remember that? Here's what he said a month before winning the green jacket at Augusta.
"I'm looking forward to Augusta, if I get to go play," Willett said. "Obviously, [my wife] Nic's due that week, so all depends on how our little man is fairing. If he fancies coming out early on, it would be great, but if not, I won't be playing. You can't get back in time. There's plenty more Masters."
Spieth finished T2 with Lee Westwood at the Masters after that collapse on No. 12. But what if Willett's baby doesn't come early? Does Spieth win in a playoff and turn one of sports' all-time tragedies into one of its greatest redemptions? Or does he win in regulation because he's not pressing for birdies when pars would have still won the golf tournament?
The "what if" game is a slippery slope of course, but it proves two things about golf.
- Outcomes are not everything, process is.
- The line between winning and losing is laughably thin.
I'm more concerned with No. 1 because really the only thing we know about how to win golf tournaments is that if you give yourself enough chances to win golf tournaments, you're going to win them. It's not primarily a skill thing; it's often a percentage thing.
Sergio Garcia alluded to this last week when he won the Byron Nelson. "Don't get me wrong, you have to get lucky to win tournaments," said Garcia. "Playing well usually is not enough."
As fans and media, we're obsessed with hoisting trophies and accumulating Ws. And that's fine. But it's less the measure of a true champion than it is the measure of someone who just put himself in contention to win a golf tournament more often than everyone else. Real contention, I mean, not backdoor top 10 contention.
That's something Spieth has done over and over again. Of all the great golfers in the world, Spieth might understand the rhythm of a tournament better than all the rest. He proved that again on Sunday at Colonial.
"I wasn't sure how long it would take to get over the hurdle of having to come in to every single interview room," said Spieth on Sunday. "Having to listen to crowds only talk about what happened a month ago, and it's very difficult. I'm 22. It's not like I hadn't won ... we've won two majors. It's very difficult to stay present, stay positive when that's happening, when those are the only questions."
So don't believe the hype when it comes to the early demise of Jordan Spieth's career. It's a media-made narrative, and it was never true. The mental side of things has been repaired as Spieth noted, and the physical greatness never went anywhere. Instead, the resounding senses of summer have been sounded, and golf has announced its arrival.
I'm not talking about the early-morning sunrises or the dense humidity that accompanies June, July and Augusta. I'm talking about back-to-back-to-back weeks of Jason Day, Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth winning golf tournaments with the Memorial and U.S. Open on deck and British Open and PGA Championship just around the corner. Winter is gone. Summer is coming.
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