CROMWELL, Conn. — Here’s what happens when you win majors at the age of 21 and become No. 1 in the world at the age of 22: Anything short of sheer dominance in the following years is viewed with a collective shrug from the masses.
Tiger Woods learned that the hard way. Revisionist history tries to tell us that he won the 1997 Masters and immediately started winning everything, everywhere, all the time. The truth is that Woods won just twice more that year, once the next year and didn’t claim his second major title until the following year’s PGA Championship, ending a 10-tournament winless drought at the big ones.
Looking back on it, that was hardly a drought at all. Instead, it was a mere blip on the road to history, a period largely lost in time that faded away once more chapters were added to the story.
Jordan Spieth can probably empathize.
He won the Masters and U.S. Open at 21, reached No. 1 in the world at 22 and now at 23 is merely one of the world’s best players. He’s not dominant, but then again, neither is anyone else. And while he’s yet to replicate that early-career success, he’s hardly taken a step back, either.
Only seven players have earned more world ranking points this year than Spieth. Only five players are ranked higher on the FedEx Cup points list. Only two players own more top-10s on the PGA Tour, only one player has a better birdie percentage and nobody owns better ball-striking numbers.
And yet, the common narrative surrounding Spieth this year is that he’s underachieved. Granted, much of that has to do with his having “only” one win and “only” a T-11 at the Masters and a T-35 at the U.S. Open, but a bigger part of the equation is that expectations have been raised to the highest level.
Well, those critical of Spieth’s performance should take note of him at the Travelers Championship this week. It’s not just that he’s the clubhouse leader, it’s how he’s leading.
The world’s best golfers can all win when they have their best stuff. When their drives sail high and far and settle in the short stuff, when the ball is clicking dead center in the middle of the clubface, when the hole looks the size of a bucket, these guys are tough to beat.
Jordan Spieth’s 69 on Friday didn’t match his 63 from Round 1, but the two-time major winner still walked off the course with the lead at the Travelers Championship.
And yes, Spieth is also among those elite players who, when everything is firing on all cylinders, is a good bet to find himself on top of a leaderboard.
That was exactly the case during this week’s opening round, when he posted a 63 to claim the overnight lead.
But here’s where the story takes a slight turn: In Friday’s second round, Spieth was just a little off. His swing didn’t feel quite as smooth; the hole didn’t look quite as big. He posted a solid, if not spectacular, 1-under-par 69.
All of which proves yet another theory: What separates these elite players from the next tier is the fact that they can also camp out on the leaderboard with something less than their best stuff.
“By comparing it to the way I’ve struck the ball the past four or five months, it was an off day, but it was still solid,” Spieth said after a round that included four birdies, two bogeys and a double-bogey. “I wouldn’t say I played my B-game. I’ve been playing pretty solid golf.”
There was that double-bogey on the par-5 13th hole, the result of a drive pulled out of bounds. There were a handful of loose approach shots that led to lengthy birdie chances. There were a few putts he’d probably like to try again.
For most players, anything less than their best stuff would likely result in posting something over par and losing the lead. For Spieth, it simply meant that he didn’t pull away from the field.
He wasn’t able to build momentum off that low opening round but still leads. That should be considered more of a positive than a negative.
“It’s because he’s good; he’s really good,” explained playing partner Wesley Bryan, who is only a couple of strokes behind Spieth. “He made a couple of mistakes that I feel were uncharacteristic with wedges in his hands the last couple of days. You would think this weekend he’s going to sharpen up and keep running out front. Hopefully, I can catch up.”
In a year in which he has “only” one victory and is “only” among the most prolific PGA Tour players once again, perhaps it’s fitting that Spieth “only” posted a score barely below par on Friday yet still owns a great chance to win.
Based on his past success, the bar has been set high. Winning one, even without his best stuff, could help Spieth leap a few notches closer to it.