In 2017, Jordan Spieth was the best he has ever been. While it's true that 2015 was a more decorated year for him, never has his game been truer from tee to green than in 2017 when he won the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, Travelers Championship and then the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale. He was maybe the best iron player in the world, and he didn't have to rely on making long putts as much as he did two years earlier.
After that win at Pebble, I remember another world-class player discussing what a problem he was going to be, which was some great foreshadowing for the summer.
Incredibly, Spieth has been even statistically better over the first six months of 2021 than he was over the first six months of 2017. (He somehow got better at the end of 2017, so we'll see if he can keep pace this year.) The numbers are incredibly similar, but he's been a slightly better driver and a bit better around and on the greens. His iron play has not been quite as quality as it was from January to July in 2017, but it's been good enough to place him third in the world so far this year behind Collin Morikawa and Paul Casey. He's gaining over a stroke per round on the field just with his iron play.
This reality likely doesn't feel true because he has not won a major this year and he only has a Texas Open win to show for it, but the data is the data, and often in golf what feels true is actually not. None of this means anything, of course, as it relates to legacy or history, but it's important to note when an amazing Open Championship golfer like Spieth is marrying a calendar year of success to a recent history of Open treasure.
Spieth has never missed a cut at an Open. He hasn't finished worse than T30 since 2014 when he finished T36. Even when his game was threadbare and his greatest asset (his mind) was doing somersaults trying to recapture the magic everyone presumed was simply part of his DNA, he still played well at The Open.
In 2018, he played in the final pairing on Sunday at Carnoustie and finished T12. In 2019 at Royal Portrush, he patched together a top-20 finish.
It's 2017, though, that everyone wants to discuss. It came on the heels not of his triumphant entry into a modern-day garden of golf gods but rather deep in the wake of what felt like a funeral procession at the 2016 Masters when he melted on the second nine. So while Spieth was playing incredible golf throughout 2017, just as he's been doing so far in 2021, he knew hitting every shot flush-flush wasn't going to be enough on that famous day at Birkdale.
"I remember bringing it up to Michael, during the round," said Spieth on "Chronicles of a Champion Golfer". "Saying, 'Hey Mikey, I got some demons right now. I got some bad thoughts in my head about today and what could happen.' During the round, I remember voicing that to him."
You all know how that ended, but he couldn't have known how much it would foreshadow his time after taking that Claret Jug. He would go nearly four more years without a win, most of it without even truly contending, at least not the way he was used to early in his career. The ship has been righted and Spieth is once again playing great, but just as he shed those Rae's Creek demons at Birkdale in 2017, he could rid himself of a few more by closing a four-year loop (nearly to the day) and snagging his fourth major at this Open at Royal St. George's.
Spieth's game is so perfect for Open Championships. His amalgamation of self-belief and sense of the moment combined with being a top-five iron player in the world and having a short game you'd donate a vital organ for was seemingly handcrafted for Open Championships.
His chances this week are being understandably overshadowed by Jon Rahm and whatever it is Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka are quibbling about. Because he has not played his way into legitimate contention on the weekend at a major so far in 2021, he's easy to forget about or even dismiss going into the first round in Sandwich on Thursday.
That's when the magic happens, though. Spieth is special. It cannot be explained on DataGolf.com or Wikipedia or by his contemporaries. Of course you have to have the gifts to collect the trophies, but he has something beyond the gifts as well. Something that you cannot see or feel or touch. Something that has been inexplicable for as long as sport has existed. It's like the wind, it's just there.
It doesn't mean he's going to win this Open Championship, but it's also the reason he might leave Sandwich, England, with the Claret Jug. He touched on it after the 2017 Open when he briefly took out his soul on the program I mentioned earlier and let you take a snapshot of it before he snatched it and put it back.
"I had been through the demons and back, and it was done," said Spieth. "The fire burns just as deep. It was unknown back then, now I know what it was like. I know the feeling of what it's like when you're on top of the golf world. When you have it, it's so special. When you lose it, you want it even more."