Jordan Spieth began his 2018-19 season on the PGA Tour this weekend in the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open after a somewhat bizarre winless campaign that caused him to miss the Tour Championship for the first time and have to pay a $20,000 fine for not competing in a mandatory 25 events.
Spieth, who became the only player in PGA Tour history to hole a bunker shot in a playoff to win in the 2017 Travelers Championship, called last season “a building year.” It started with a bout with mono and continued through inconsistent putting and failing to play in the minimum number of required starts when he missed qualifying for the Tour Championship by one spot. Partly in an effort to atone for his scheduling snafu and partly out of readiness to start a new chapter, Spieth is one of the headliners in Las Vegas this weekend.
“I feel great being here. I feel rested. I feel healthy,” Spieth told reporters before shooting a 5-under-par 66 Thursday in the first round of his Shriners debut. “The game feels like it’s in good shape.”
Spieth’s game is rarely in neutral. When things are clicking, he’s reaching astonishing heights and threatening to re-write whatever page of the record books he can get his hands on as demonstrated by his three major championships and the historic playoff victory over Daniel Berger in the Travelers that enabled him to join Tiger Woods as the only players to win 10 Tour titles by the age of 24. He used that stirring win as the impetus to his third major title in the British Open, going 5 under the final five holes after losing the lead to Matt Kuchar. That made Spieth the only player besides Jack Nicklaus to win three of the four majors before 24.
Life off the course seemed also seemed on the upswing in February 2018, when Spieth was announced as the PGA Tour’s chairman of the Player Advisory Council, succeeding Davis Love III. The 16-member panel consults with the PGA Tour’s Policy Board and commissioner Jay Monahan, the former director of the Deutsche Bank Championship at TPC Boston in Norton, Mass., on issues affecting the tour. Spieth began serving a three-year term, but he battled mono to start the year and then struggled with his trusty putter.
Spieth’s search for answers is usually painstaking and public, and he isn’t one to hide his on-course emotions, so his struggles relative to his lofty standards were out in the open for all to see. That included in his Travelers Championship defense, where he opened with a 7-under 63 that included six birdies and an eagle but struggled the rest of the way, finishing in a tie for 42nd at 4 under.
After starting 2017 ranked second in the world, he teed off this week at No. 13, his lowest standing in nearly four years. He also was part of a Ryder Cup controversy of not being paired with Masters champion Patrick Reed, whom he had excelled with in the past. But he and longtime buddy Justin Thomas won three of four matches, one of the few bright spots in a 17.5-10.5 loss to Europe in suburban Paris, France.
Then came the scheduling snafu for failing to satisfy the PGA Tour’s rule requiring most players to add a new event to their schedule each season. Under PGA Tour rules adopted for the 2016-17 season, a player must add an event to their schedule each season that they haven’t played in the prior four seasons. Certain players — lifetime PGA Tour members, members 45 and older and dual PGA Tour-PGA Tour Champions members — are exempt. Other members can be exempt from the rule if they play at least 25 tournaments in the current season or did in the previous season.
So 2017 was quite a trying change for one of golf’s young phenoms.
“It’s a blessing and a curse, kind of, the perfectionism that I kind of have,” said Spieth, an 11-time Tour winner since his first victory in 2013 at 19. “I just overdid it. I was spending longer, I spent more time at the course when my game was off than when it was on. Didn’t really find the right balance.”
Spieth also will play next week in the Mayakoba Golf Classic in Mexico. While it’s a unique two-step for one of the game’s biggest stars, likely motivated in part by his shortfall in starts last season, Spieth insisted it’s not that much different than his typical fall slate.
Spieth has often played the Australian Open, winning in 2014 and 2016, and is also a former champ and regular participant at the Hero World Challenge hosted by Woods. But he won’t go down to Australia next month, and his upcoming wedding to Annie Verret conflicts with Tiger’s event in the Bahamas.
“I’m playing the same number, from the end of the team events (Ryder Cup) to the new year,” Spieth said.
So rather than Sydney or Albany, it’s the outskirts of Sin City where Spieth began his new campaign. If searching for inspiration, he told reporters he need look no further than 2014, when he finished the first winless PGA Tour season of his career. He broke through in Australia that fall, won the next week at Tiger’s event at Isleworth and jump-started a 2015 season that came within a few shots of the single-season Grand Slam.
The search for form can be frustrating, but with Spieth, it sometimes doesn’t last very long. He’s trying to make a quick turnaround alongside 2018 PGA Tour Rookie of the Year Aaron Wise and Cameron Champ in the first two rounds.
“I can look at ’14 into ’15 and sit there and say, ‘You know, the second I get disappointed in dropping whatever, seven or eight spots in the world ranking, by August of the next year I was back to No. 1 in the world off one season,'” Spieth said. “That can happen again. You know, it’s quick how things can kind of turn and change when you get a little momentum.
“It was a building year. I look back at last year as something that I think will be beneficial for me in the long run. I really believe that. I know that’s an easy thing to say looking at kind of the positive in a negative, but there were tangible, mechanical things that I needed to address, and I was able to throughout the season. I feel like I’m free rolling this year. Just having an elongated perspective, more patient view of things, helps free me up personally.”
Connecticut golf fans will be looking for a turnaround and another visit to TPC River Highlands in Cromwell on June 20-23.