HARTFORD, Conn. – After notching arguably the most dramatic victory in professional golf history in the Travelers Championship and then winning the Open Championship a month later, Jordan Spieth seemed destined to non-stop greatness.
Unfortunately and sadly, Spieth dipped deeply into an agonizing abyss, falling to 92nd in the Official World Golf Rankings after being No. 1 following stirring wins at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell and Royal Birkdale in Southport, England, in 2017.
You can almost still hear the unprecedented roar when Spieth sank a 61-foot bunker shot on the first playoff hole to beat Daniel Berger in Cromwell. It’s the only time someone won a PGA Tour event by holing a bunker shot in a playoff, and Spieth joined Tiger Woods as the only players to notch 10 career victories by the age of 24.
“It was Jordan doing Jordan things,” said a smiling, gracious and classy Berger, who low-fived Spieth as he went to line up a 48-foot putt to force a second playoff hole that failed to fall.
The historic shot gave impetus to perhaps the best celebration in golf history as Spieth tossed his sand wedge in the air, raced out of the bunker and did a memorable chest bump with caddie Michael Geller, who threw the rake that he was holding into the ground. After Spieth did all of his press commitments, he and Geller returned to the bunker with the rake for a priceless photo.
But entering last week’s Waste Management Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale, Spieth had only five Top-10 finishes in 78 starts since the Open Championship after winning 13 times in the same number of events prior to that. He hadn’t finished in the Top 5 since the 2019 PGA Championship, and his best finish in three made cuts in seven starts this season was a tie for 38th in THE CJ CUP@ SHADOW CREEK.
So when Spieth shot a third-round, 10-under-par 61 that included a personal-best 10 birdies and tied his career PGA Tour low on Saturday, golf fans everywhere had to be rooting for a happy ending to one of the greatest turnarounds in the history of the game. Two-time Canon Greater Hartford Open champion Paul Azinger, the articulate and entertaining analyst on NBC, certainly was.
“Spieth’s self-belief is back after years of self-doubt,” Azinger said during Saturday’s telecast. “Jordan had gone from Vincent Van Gogh to paint by numbers, but the light switch must have come on after being in the dark for so long. If he wins (Sunday), it’ll be quite a story.”
Spieth’s 61 tied the lowest third-round score in tournament history set by Johnny Miller in 1970 and gave him a share of the 54-hole lead at 18-under 195 with Xander Schauffele. It was the first time in 931 days that Spieth was in that position since the Open Championship four years ago, when he also was tied with Schauffele, who birdied five of the last seven holes Saturday to keep pace with a 65.
But as often happens for players who shoot unusually low rounds, Spieth couldn’t come close to replicating his effort on Sunday. He again drove erratically from the outset (he hit only 23 of 56 fairways for the week), putting undue stress on the rest of his game, and left several putts short on the way to 72 and a 72-hole total of 17-under 267, two more than winner Brooks Koepka. Spieth finished in a tie for fourth with Schauffele (71) and Kyoung-Hoon Lee (68), while Koepka had two eagles, including a decisive 90-foot chip-in for 2 at No. 17, in a closing 65 that enabled him to win for the first time since the World Golf Championships-FedEx St. Jude Invitational 19 months ago. He had only one Top-5 finish in the 2020 calendar year and was in “excruciating” pain during the Memorial Tournament the week after the Travelers Championship.
“I’m really proud of myself because I was in dark places mentally, a lot of tears, questioning myself, for a while,” Koepka said, alluding to hip and knee injuries that diminished his skills the past 18 months, capped by three consecutive missed cuts for the first time entering the tournament. “You’ve got to come out of that, so I spent so much time with my trainer Derek (Samuel) for kind of a refresher to reset things. It takes a lot of effort just to get out of those places, and there was a period maybe for about two months where I just questioned whether I was ever going to be the same, whether I was even going to be somewhat remotely the same golfer that I ever was. This is my favorite win because of all that I went through.”
Despite failing to end a 31/2-year victory drought with his 12th PGA Tour title, Spieth felt much like Koepka, a four-time major winner who notched his first PGA Tour title in the same event in 2015 and should be at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell on June 24-27 after he and his brother, Chase, decided to withdraw from last year’s event after Brooks’ caddie, Ricky Elliott, tested positive for the coronavirus. The Koepkas tested negative but said they were exercising caution by withdrawing. Travelers officials had given Chase a sponsors’ exemption and pledged it would be granted again this year.
Spieth, meanwhile, could see fruits of success thanks to endless sessions on the practice range after lost weeks, lost months and lost years.
“I felt like I hit good putts, and as much as the lid was open other days, it was closed today,” said Spieth, who went from a missed cut in the Farmers Insurance Open, his only other start in 2021, to having a chance to win deep into the back nine. “I’m really excited about the progress that has been made in the first two weeks. It is far from where I want it to be as far as how it feels, but, boy, I was debating not even playing this week, dropping out on Friday afternoon last week.”
Longer hitters like Koepka have historically dominated at TPC Scottsdale, and Spieth admitted it “isn’t a great golf course for me historically.” He had missed the cut in his last two starts in 2018 and 2020 and also didn’t like what he saw from his game the previous week at Torrey Pines in San Diego. An AT&T ambassador, he had circled this week’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am on his calendar.
“I thought I could then go in to Pebble a little fresher,” Spieth said. “Boy, I’m glad I came.”
Spieth, who had 11 PGA Tour victories, three of them majors, in his first five seasons, now heads to famed Pebble Beach Golf Links and the rest of the season with a better sense of where his game is after having acquitted himself well for a guy who hadn’t really been in the heat in years.
“I’m only looking forward,” Spieth said. “Only looking at this from a positive angle right now. I really am. … I think I believe in what I’m doing. A result like this just helps confirm what I was already feeling, and that just moves the needle in the right direction.”
New England golf fans hope they can have another in-person view of Spieth during the $7.4 million Travelers Championship at TPC River Highlands in June when reigning Masters champion, 2020 PGA Tour Player of the Year and No. 1 ranked Dustin Johnson defends. Despite being a TV-event only last year because of the pandemic, the tournament raised more than $1.6 million for 115 local charities through the generosity of corporate sponsors, including Travelers. Since the insurance magnate became title sponsor in 2007, more than $20 million has been generated, and at least 750 organizations have benefited.