It was once thought that Jordan Spieth could — and I even made a bet that he would — win 40 PGA Tour events. We have a few years to go, but it might be time to start counting out the cash because what once seemed like such a certainty — Spieth winning twice a year for two decades — has become one of the worst propositions in golf.
Spieth has struggled over the last three years. That’s no secret. He won five times in 2015, two more in 2016 and another three in 2017 with three majors under his belt. It all felt so simple and easy, and then it was not.
Before we discuss his tribulations, though, let’s take a look at his overall PGA Tour profile after seven full seasons as a professional.
PGA Tour events: 181 | Wins: 11 (6%) | Best win: Masters, U.S. Open, The Open
Top 10s: 63 (35%) | Top 25s: 108 (60%)
These are good numbers, although they don’t look quite as good when you remember that he won his 11th PGa Tour event in his 121st attempt at the 2017 Open Championship. For most of the first 150 events of his career, Spieth’s top-five percentage and top-20 percentage intertwined nicely in comparison to somebody like Rory McIlroy even if McIlroy has consistently won at a slightly more efficient clip (currently 10%).
For most of the first part of Spieth’s career, McIlroy was an easy comp — from the ball-striking to the major championship wins. But McIlroy has not fallen out of the top 50 in the world (like Spieth did recently) since he entered it in 2008. The lowest McIlroy has been in the Official World Golf Rankings since 2010 is No. 13. Spieth is currently No. 56.
There are innumerable reasons for this, and many of them have been discussed ad nauseam. The most prominent, though, is that Spieth’s ball-striking has fallen off the planet. Here are his tee-to-green rankings on the PGA Tour over the last five years.
- 2016: 25th
- 2017: 2nd
- 2018: 23rd
- 2019: 157th
- 2020: 161st
That’s problematic and no way to win golf tournaments, something Spieth has not accomplished in three years. There’s no need to belabor the point, though. Unless Spieth improves his ball-striking, he’s not likely to win many tournaments … if any at all.
Still, his resume as it stands right now is historically good. He basically has Payne Stewart’s career — 11 wins, three majors — by the age of 26. The early trajectory was more like Tom Watson, though; Watson had 39 wins and eight major championships.
And the conversation when it comes to major championships shifts a little bit. Having three majors at Spieth’s age with the runway he has left is a big deal. Heck, having three majors total in a career is a big deal.
This is why I’ll be living on Spieth Island until it is completely submerged by the salty waters of the Atlantic.
There are only 14 Americans who have won more majors than Spieth. All are household names: Jack Nicklaus (18), Tiger Woods (15), Ben Hogan (9), Arnold Palmer (7), Lee Trevino (6), Phil Mickelson (5), Byron Nelson (5) and Brooks Koepka (4) … to name a few. This is the company Spieth has been keeping and chasing.
The encouraging part? Though the bottom has dropped out of his game over the past three years, he’s still figured out a way to contend at majors. In some ways, this is Spieth’s ethos.
It doesn’t make sense that — even with his normal game — he would win three majors by the age of 23 in the same way it doesn’t make sense that he could notch top 10s at Augusta National and Bethpage Black with the suboptimal competencies he’s been carrying for the last three seasons.
He’s finished in the top three in at least one major every year since 2014.
- 2014: Masters
- 2015: Masters, U.S. Open, PGA Championship
- 2016: Masters
- 2017: Open Championship
- 2018: Masters
- 2019: PGA Championship
This is a big deal because he’s giving himself runs at titles. There is a world that exists where Spieth is a five- or six-time major winner instead of “just” a three-time champion.
I do wonder — when it comes to majors — whether Spieth’s career is going to look a little bit like that of Trevino, who won his first five majors in a seven-year span marked by top 10 finish after top 10 finish. Then, over the next decade, times were more fallow. He still had a top 10 here or there, but Trevino didn’t win his sixth major for another decade during a period marked by several more top 10s at majors.
When it comes to winning majors and discussing trajectories, I always go back to Mickelson. Despite loads of success at a young age, he didn’t win his first until he was 33. Spieth has a seven-year and three-major head start on one of the few Americans ahead of him in the career major championship race.
Spieth may have lost his game for a bit, but there’s something about multiple major winners who double as elite ball-strikers that doesn’t go away. It’s part of who you are. You don’t stumble into wins at Augusta, Royal Birkdale and a U.S. Open by accident. And as long as the fire is still lit, it’s something you can get back. And Spieth certainly had it earlier in his career.
I have confidence Spieth will find it. The longer this difficult stretch lasts, however, the more I begin to wonder. I’ll never be convinced that there’s not something special about Spieth, so maybe anything I say around this has to be viewed through that lens. If things continue to spiral, I’ll probably pin the blame elsewhere.
There’s something there, though — not just him winning majors but the way he won them. The way he deconstructed Augusta. The way he downed Matt Kuchar at Birkdale. The way Mickelson made him the heir apparent of the U.S. team room for the next few decades.
Jordan Spieth is special. It’s a golf thread I’ll cling to until there’s nothing left. Even if it costs me on the payout of that future bet.