LOS ANGELES — The text messages were meant to encourage. They felt like back-handed compliments to Jordan Spieth.
He had just posted his second straight 67 in the Phoenix Open, three shots off the lead, and it was cause for celebration. After all, Spieth had missed the cut six times in his previous 15 tournaments. The nine other times he made it to the weekend, his average finish was nearly 15 shots behind.
“I was receiving texts that were like it was my first PGA Tour event ever,” Spieth said. “And as much as I enjoyed that support, I mean, I’m not leading by three. I didn’t win the golf tournament. Yeah, I know it’s been a little while since I’ve been near the top, but like, come on guys. I expect to be here, you know?”
Spieth knows better.
His slump has been so pronounced that he now has gone 80 individual tournaments worldwide since his last victory at Royal Birkdale in the 2017 British Open. And it won’t officially end until he wins again.
He’s getting closer.
Whether it’s baby steps or giant leaps, at least he’s moving forward.
He shared the 54-hole lead in Phoenix until he limped home with a 72 to tie for fourth. One week later, he opened with rounds of 65-67 and took a two-shot lead into the final round at Pebble Beach only to endure another poor start and spend the rest of the day trying to catch up. Two birdies at the end gave him a tie for third.
He was No. 2 in the world when he won at Birkdale. He dropped as low as No. 92 after missing the cut at Torrey Pines last month. The close calls at Phoenix and Pebble allowed him to move up 30 spots to No. 62.
Even so, he needs another top finish this week at Riviera or Spieth won’t be eligible for a World Golf Championship for the first time since becoming a full PGA Tour member in the summer of 2013.
But he has momentum now, which has been lacking the better part of two years.
In his first start to the new year, he shot 75 on the South Course at Torrey Pines to miss the cut by one shot and wasn’t even sure he wanted to go to Phoenix. “I was not in a great head space,” he said.
And then it turned.
There was a time when going consecutive weeks with at least a share of the lead and not converting would have been considered a failure. Now it’s called progress.
“If I put myself in the position of leading after 54 holes enough times, especially with how I know I’m going to fight even if it’s not going my way, I’ll end up on top one of these days,” Spieth said.
His game is not all the way back. Spieth sensed that Saturday night at Pebble Beach when he led by two shots. Yes, he felt more and more confident. He also said he didn’t have control of his game the way he did when he was winning at least three times a year.
Remember, he was still 23 when he already had 14 wins worldwide and three legs of the career Grand Slam. Nothing about the game had ever felt like a burden.
And that’s what has made the climb feel that much steeper. Spieth was as honest as ever last fall when he spoke of anxiety from all the scrutiny of his slump, which he described as “not being able to fail in the dark.”
That was neither an excuse nor a complaint. That was reality.
“No hard feelings, no blame,” he said. “That’s what I get for the start of my career, which was awesome. Anything asked in a negative manner, it’s not like I don’t feel that way in my own game. I know what I’ve done. I know what I’m capable of doing. And when I don’t, it’s more frustrating for me than it is anyone else.”
Frustration has given way to disappointment, and that’s a good thing. Never having a chance to win on the weekend, having to make a 12-foot par putt on the 18th hole just to make the cut at the Masters or missing the cut left him numb. That’s worse than the sting of missing out on a chance to win on the back nine.
The next step is doing away with all the drama.
Spieth knows his game isn’t as sharp as it was or as it needs to be, so there was some small satisfaction in still being able to take a lead into the final round.
“But at the same time, it’s very difficult to go out knowing that you don’t have your best stuff and to go out there with my own expectation that I’m going to win,” he said. “I just hope that I continue to progress like this to where I can stand on that first tee as confident as I historically have been and … I can go out and play boring golf and just hit a bunch of greens and make it a really easy 18 holes to win a golf tournament.”
Easy as it once seemed to be. Hard as ever now.
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