May 18, 2016
IRVING, Texas – With nine holes to play at last month’s Masters, the paradigm seemed to be swinging in Jordan Spieth’s direction with every confident swing.
With a five-stroke lead as he made the turn at the year’s first major, Spieth already had the metaphorical arm in another green jacket and a stranglehold on his third major championship.
With a victory, Spieth would have wrested back the top spot in the Official World Golf Ranking from Jason Day and reestablished himself as the undisputed king of a game he was making look ridiculously easy.
Over the next three holes, that new dynamic unraveled shockingly quick. Bogeys at Nos. 10 and 11 set the stage for a quadruple bogey-7 at the par-3 12th hole that included not one but two shots into the depths of Rae’s Creek.
Since that implosion, Day has cemented his status as the game’s alpha male while Spieth has . . . well, struggled.
At Augusta National, Day’s advantage over world No. 2 Spieth was 1.37 average ranking points. That advantage has now been extended to 2.48 average points. To put that in context, Spieth could win his next two starts – this week at the AT&T Byron Nelson and next week at Colonial – and still not reclaim the top spot.
At the time, Spieth’s Masters meltdown was surprising, shocking even; but it was mitigated somewhat by his record and the fact he’d already made his first visit to Butler Cabin for the iconic winner’s ceremony in 2015.
There was solace in the fact that although he wasn’t the world’s best, that benchmark was only one good week away, but considering how the last few weeks have transpired, with Day winning his seventh title in his last 17 starts at last week’s Players, that warm blanket is no longer as comforting.
“There’s some motivation there,” Spieth conceded on Tuesday. “[Day] is playing his game. He believes his game is better than anybody else’s and he’s on his game and so it is better than everyone else’s . . . He’s separated himself and that bothers me and it motivates me.”
That’s a Texas mile from where the game found itself just seven short months ago following Spieth’s historic season that included five Tour victories, two major championship triumphs and a FedEx Cup title.
Spieth was the runaway winner of the 2015 Player of the Year voting despite Day’s season, which also included five victories, a major and two playoff triumphs.
On Wednesday at the Byron Nelson, however, there was no doubt who had taken control of the game.
“What Jason is doing is just dominant,” Ryan Palmer said “Seven wins in 17 starts, he’s overpowering golf courses like Tiger [Woods] used to.”
Spieth – whose record at TPC Four Seasons Resort since turning pro is less than stellar (his best finish as a Tour member was last year’s tie for 30th place) – can change that dynamic, much like he did last summer with his run through the major championship season.
But all things being equal, it’s hard to imagine Day going quietly back into a bit player role after his stellar start to the season.
Oakmont, widely considered the most challenging of all major championship venues, would fit more snuggly into Day’s wheelhouse, with his unique combination of power and precision.
The same could be said for Baltusrol, site of this year’s PGA Championship and the Memorial, where the duo will face each other next.
“Their games are so different,” Palmer said. “When they are both on they don’t miss many on the greens, but Jason will have the edge with his length.”
To be fair, Spieth has played just once since the Masters, and that didn’t go well with a missed cut last week at The Players. He also acknowledged that his swing has been off the last few weeks as he tries to initiate subtle changes to his action.
Asked if Spieth’s position in the world rankings behind Day is motivational, Colt Knost, who is spending the week staying at Spieth’s Dallas-area home, didn’t hesitate, “Absolutely,” he said.
“The kid is as determined as anyone I’ve seen,” Knost said. “He hasn’t played his best, but he has so much pressure on him, he’s only 22 years old. He will be fine.”
The expectations heaped on Spieth were always going to be difficult to deal with, but the pressure he places on himself is likely even greater and it certainly hasn’t been easy to watch the narrative swing so dramatically in another’s favor the last few weeks.
When he made the turn on Sunday at the Masters, the top rung was once again within his grasp. Five weeks later, the distance between where he is and where he wants to be is considerably further.