A week after Patrick Reed made golf a laughingstock in the sports world, his old Ryder Cup partner elevated it back to the top, even on Super Bowl weekend. Jordan Spieth made a career-high 10 birdies on Saturday in Round 3 of the Waste Management Phoenix Open and shot a career-low 61. He co-leads with Xander Schauffele at 18 under going into the final round of the event on Sunday at TPC Scottsdale.
They lead by three over Scottie Scheffler and K.H. Lee.
Saturday was absolute madness. Following a 31 on the front, Spieth chipped in for birdie at the 10th hole, made another one at the 11th and missed a short eagle putt on the 13th before tapping in for par. Things, as they say, were happening, and it felt as if the three-time major winner (albeit 92nd-ranked player in the world) somehow became the underdog story of the year.
The real fireworks came on the par-3 16th and par-4 17th holes when Spieth buried 65 feet worth of birdies to run his score for the day to 10 under and give himself a real shot at 60 on the 18th. The whole thing would have been ludicrous, even if Spieth hadn’t been wandering in the desert for the last several years. Because he has, though, the day bordered on the surreal.
After he made the one on No. 17, Spieth pointed at a fan across the water on the hole. It was reminiscent of his point to caddie Michael Greller at that 2017 Open at Royal Birkdale when he told him to “go get that” following an eagle. Spieth parred 18 for the 61, and has nobody ahead of him going into the last 18 holes.
Spieth is so historically good that it’s nearly impossible not think about how what he does in real time reflects other things he’s done throughout his career. Maybe that’s a result of those of us who love watching him play trying to project the present onto the future because of the past, but it happens often when Spieth is on.
The other thing that happens when he’s on is that everyone who’s part of this completely loses their minds. My Twitter mentions and text inbox were overflowing on Saturday, not because the Phoenix Open is competitive and good through 54 holes (which it is) but rather because Spieth is making folks feel some things they haven’t felt in a while. Can it last through Sunday night though?
Spieth’s 54-hold co-lead is the 17th of his career, but his first since the final round of the 2018 Open Championship, which Francesco Molinari went on to win. He’s converted on nine of the first 16. It goes deeper than that for Spieth, too. He has no wins or even runner-up finishes since the start of 2018. He’s gone 43 months without a victory on the PGA Tour.
What’s terrifying is that his statistics illuminate what could be a bumpy Sunday finale. Spieth has been below field average off the tee, and he’s hitting just 43% of fairways through the first three rounds. However (and this is a big however), he’s leading the field in approach shots, which is what he did when he was at his very best back in 2017 when he won the Open. A course like TPC Scottsdale allows him to get away with a wayward driver. And he’s putting like he’s as desperate for a victory as we are.
Sunday’s final round will be fascinating. Spieth, whose final-round scoring average over the last few years has been atrocious, will likely continue to struggle off the tee. But every other part of his game is clicking at such a high level that it might not matter. The dynamic between him and Schauffele will be interesting, too. Spieth is a lethal closer, and Schauffele is not. Times are different now than they were in 2017 or 2015, though, and what happened then has little bearing on what happens now.
Spieth is special, though, and he always has been. It’s difficult to watch what we watched on Saturday afternoon and think anything other than this is the weekend he snaps the spells that have plagued his mind and his game for so many months. It’s difficult to watch what happened on Saturday and be anything other than optimistic for the future. It’s difficult to watch what happened on Saturday and not think Jordan Spieth is going to close out the 12th — and very likely, most important — PGA Tour victory of his career.