There was little reason to think that Jordan Spieth would do much of anything at this week’s PGA Championship, not at a course as daunting as Bethpage Black. Pick a golf fancy stat, especially one that allegedly could predict success at a course that demands both length and accuracy, and Spieth was bad-to-middling at it. Entering the tournament, he ranked 202nd (out of 214) in strokes gained off the tee, 122nd in strokes gained approach, 178th in strokes gained tee-to-green, 205th in driving accuracy, tied for 126th in scrambling and 86th in driving distance.
And his results reflected that. Spieth’s high-water mark this season was a tie for 21st at the Masters, a tournament he started with a first-round 75. He missed the cut at the Players Championship. In the seven other stroke-play events he’s played this calendar year, his best finish was a tie for 29th at last weekend’s Byron Nelson, which takes place in his Dallas backyard.
So no, a PGA Championship win — which would give him the career grand slam — didn’t seem likely. But then he held his own during Thursday’s first round, joining a sizable group chasing Brooks Koepka at 1 under par. Friday was even better, a long-anticipated return to form: Hitting the course early in the morning, Spieth shot a 4-under-par 66 to at least temporarily move into second place within two strokes of Koepka, who had yet to tee off.
Afterward, Spieth had a one-word interruption for a reporter’s question about his season-long slump. He “was” in a slump, but no longer is:
Putting has been Spieth’s salvation all season — he ranked 28th in strokes gained putting entering the PGA — and was so again over his final nine holes, when he made his move on holes 1-9 (he started on the back nine). At No. 1, Spieth hit a 20-foot putt for birdie. No. 3 saw a nervy 12-footer for par. He stuck his approach to six feet at No. 4, setting up another birdie, and did just about the same thing at No. 7.
The capper came at the par-3 eighth, Spieth’s 17th hole of the day, when he sank a 40-footer for birdie.
Spieth is just 25, so it may be a little premature to be talking about career-defining slumps, but that’s what happens when you tie for second at your first Masters (age 20), become the first wire-to-wire Masters winner in 39 years (age 21), become just the sixth player to win the Masters and the U.S. Open in the same year (also age 21) and then — by winning the 2017 British Open — become just the second player in history after Jack Nicklaus to win three of the four golf majors before your 24th birthday.
And it’s happened to the best of them. Nicklaus was 27 when won his seventh grand slam at the 1967 U.S. Open. He would go more than three years until he would win his eighth at the 1970 British Open. Tiger Woods was 27 when he won his eighth major at the 2002 U.S. Open. Ten grand slams would pass until his ninth at the 2005 Masters.
Spieth seems to be getting his slump out of the way earlier. In any case, he’s just happy to see improvement.
“I’m 100 percent not hitting it as well as I did a few years ago, but I’m hitting it much better than I was late last year and early this year,” he said Friday.
Now comes the weekend, Spieth’s next boogeyman to slay as he works his way back. As The Action Network’s Jason Sobel noted, Spieth has been one of the best players on tour in the second round this season, but has struggled on the weekend.