These are (relatively) bad times for Jordan Spieth. The 25-year-old is down at No. 33 in the World Golf Ranking, which would be great for almost anyone else but is scary territory for Spieth. In January 2018, he was No. 2. But he didn’t finish in the top two in any tournament last year, and his backslide has continued into 2019: eight events, two missed cuts, no top-10s. He enters The Masters with the 109th-best scoring average on the PGA Tour this season. That’s not good, for Spieth or any other regular touring pro.
When Spieth comes to Augusta National, it’s fair to expect brilliance. With the exception of a few brutal minutes at Amen Corner in 2016, that’s all he’s ever brought to this course. In five Masters, he’s been in contention on Sunday five times. He’s won once, and the only time he finished worse than third was after he made a shocking 7 at the par-3 12th in ‘16, when he put consecutive balls into Rae’s Creek. By the analytics and Strokes Gained data, his five-year run at this course is historic by Masters standards.
If Spieth’s going to deliver more Augusta magic in 2019, he’ll have to overcome the longest bout of poor play of his career. He might be able, but here’s what he’s up against.
1. Spieth’s putting, the thing he’s most famous for being great at, has declined. He describes that as a starting point for his broader struggles.
From about midway through 2015 until about midway 2017, Spieth putted like a top-five player. During that span, he regularly gained about a stroke per round on the field, according to rolling averages compiled by Data Golf. Spieth’s exploits with the flat stick became well known. Around this time, he sank the most famous putt of his career: a 50-footer for eagle to help win the ‘17 Open Championship. A confident Spieth didn’t even pick his ball out of the cup, instead pointing and telling caddie Michael Greller, “Go get that.”
Spieth’s putting was on a downturn before he got to Augusta for the 2018 Masters, and it kept getting worse deep into the summer. He finished second on tour in Strokes Gained Putting in 2016, followed by 48th in 2017 and a devastating 123rd in 2018. He’s improved to 70th in 2019 and shown some encouraging signs, like a dominant putting performance in a second-round 69 at The Players. But he’s still working his way back.
In an early-April interview with No Laying Up, Spieth said his putting struggles leaked into the rest of his game, causing problems with his hand-body alignment and leading his club face on other swings to stay open and behind him. Spieth thinks he’s figured out the problem.
“We finally got on top of it recently,” he told the podcast. “We finally figured it out, and now it’s just a matter of repetitions.”
2. Spieth has never been a masher off the tee, but he used to be accurate enough to be pretty good anyway. Lately, he hasn’t been.
In Strokes Gained off the tee, Spieth’s gone up and down, but he’s almost always been above average while rarely a top star with driver. Weirdly, the most effective driving of his career came in the middle of 2018, when so much else was wrong with his game.
He doesn’t hit the hell out of the ball. He’s never finished higher than 51st on tour in driving distance. He’s never even ranked that highly in fairways hit. But he’s typically been able to put the ball in smart spots and leave himself good looks with his irons. Strokes Gained says Spieth’s been a top-30 or top-40 player off the tee for much of his heyday.
Not in 2019, though. Spieth goes to Augusta ranked outside the top 200 in Strokes Gained off the tee, 59th in distance, and 212th in accuracy. Spieth may indeed have fixed his putting, but he’s still waiting on this part of his game to round back into form.
3. His iron game has declined along with his tee shots.
Spieth has often been an elite approach player during his career. He showed glimpses of that in 2014 and ‘15 and, after a dip in 2016, played great approach after great approach in 2017. He was second in Strokes Gained approaching the green that season, and he was particularly awesome on anything inside 175 yards. That year, the average Spieth approach from 150-175 yards settled 22 feet, 4 inches from the hole — best on tour. From 125-150 yards out, he stuck his shots 20 feet, 2 inches away on average — fifth-best.
He fell to 33rd in Strokes Gained on approach in 2018, and he’s plummeted to 111th in the first few months of 2019. In a bunch of yardage ranges tracked by the tour, he’s outside the top 100. His approaches have been the worst part of his game, according to Strokes Gained. Over his last 50 rounds, he’s lost 0.6 shots to the field per round on them.
4. When he’s around the green, he’s struggled badly.
For statistical purposes, those are shots within 30 yards of the green, but not actually on the green. Over Spieth’s career, they’ve been like so much else: always above average, often elite. But his chipping’s been going downhill since early in 2018.
Spieth finished in the top five in Strokes Gained around the green every year from 2015 to ‘17, peaking at seventh in 2015. But he was 49th in 2018 and is 82nd in 2019. When he has to scramble from within 10 yards of the green — the shortest chips and flops a golfer can make — he’s saving par just 73.6 percent of the time, which is 197th on tour. Fifty players are above 90 percent. Spieth’s also been downright awful from bunkers. He’s tied for 211 out of 214 tracked PGA Tour players in sand save rate: 36.6 percent.
If Spieth’s putting is indeed the key to the rest of his game coming back, then he could be back atop a leaderboard really soon.
His putting was breaking bad before a lot of these other things were, though his chipping was in a statistical decline even before then, by late 2016. The putting followed throughout 2017, and Spieth didn’t seem to find the light at the end of the tunnel until recently.
The best news is also the obvious news: Spieth’s still young and has plenty of time to fix himself.
Tiger Woods is Tiger Woods, but he was able to go from a No. 674 ranking at 41 to No. 12 now, at 43, following a ton of physical and personal turmoil.
Plenty of non-Tiger players have dipped and dunked in the rankings, at more advanced ages than Spieth’s, and then had long and fruitful runs near the top of the sport. Francesco Molinari, now 36, went from 66th after 2015 to a top-10 ranking today. At 33, Bubba Watson won the 2012 Masters to move to No. 4 in the world, didn’t win a tournament again that year or the next year, fell to 30th in the world, and was wearing the green jacket again by 2014.
But if you’re betting on Spieth to do anything of note at Augusta, you’re betting on nostalgia, and nostalgia isn’t a good investment.
At 16/1 or 18/1, depending on where you look, bookmakers are selling Spieth as one of the six or eight likeliest players to win The Masters. I suggest hunting for better value.