FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — Such a wonderful, awful, rewarding game is golf. You have it, well, not mastered but at least enough under control that the scores are low and your hopes are high. And then?
Well, please don’t ask Jordan Spieth, because everybody else has.
You know that Mr. Spieth, a virtual prodigy, won the Masters and U.S. Open back to back in 2015, at age 21. Became No. 1 in the World Golf Ranking. Took the British Open in 2017. And nothing since.
Nothing, never mind a major. Not a single victory in any tournament for 22 months.
Spieth began to talk — and maybe think — like someone who was just learning the sport, worried about the angle of his swing, analyzing his putting stroke, mumbling about a lack of confidence. The word slump was a part of too many conversations.
Before the week is up, it could be replaced by another word, comeback. Spieth shot a 4-under 66 on Friday in the second round of the PGA Championship at that beast of a public course on Long Island, Bethpage Black, and is high on the leader board with a 5-under 135, behind Brooks Koepka but ahead of Dustin Johnson.
He seemed less excited than relieved, a man again able to believe in himself and the results of what he could deliver with his clubs. There was assurance rather than doubt. There was satisfaction.
In golf, disaster is only one swing away. But so is success. The danger always is to dwell on the negative, especially when for a while there hasn’t much positive.
“I think confidence-wise I’ve been there,” Spieth insisted after his round of six birdies and two bogies at Bethpage — an attempt to make us, and himself, remember the good days.
Of course he has. But the age-old question of sports is whether performance builds confidence — shooting a lot of 66s would make anyone feel unbeatable — or confidence builds performance.
And all the questions about the problems prove as frustrating as the problems themselves.
Asked about that confidence during his round, Spieth, always a rapid conversationalist, said, “I think it was fine. I didn’t feel I was in fantastic form, but I also really liked what I saw with the putter. And I thought I hit the ball better than last week.”
The putter always had been the essential club for Spieth and, say many experts, the important club in a game where a two-footer on the green counts the same number of strokes as a 300-yarder off the tee: one.
Spieth’s reputation was for brilliant putting. At that ’17 British Open at Royal Birkdale, he made a one-putt bogey on the back nine and then, wham, wham, wham, holed birdies to beat Matt Kuchar. But early in 2018, Spieth’s putting declined, and with it went his overall game.
“I made a lot of putts,” he said of the first two PGA rounds at Bethpage, “and I scrambled really well. I think I was four for four out of bunkers and a couple others out of the rough.
“But I need to hit more fairways. The ball has to find the fairway as often as it does for the guys around me, D.J. (Dustin Johnson), Brooks. It’s not going to be as far as theirs, so I’d better be in as many fairways.”
So he gets more distance on drives. Johnson and Koepka, big boomers, can power out of the rough to the green, which Spieth cannot. And yet, getting the ball into the cup is what counts. At the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay near Tacoma, Dustin Johnson 3-putted the 72nd hole and ended up a shot behind Spieth.
Almost ignored coming into this tournament is that, with a victory in this PGA, Spieth would become the sixth golfer, joining Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, to win each of the four majors. That possibility hasn’t crept into Spieth’s mind.
“I can’t imagine it will,” said Spieth, “because I really haven’t been in contention (in a major) on a Sunday since the (British) Open last year.” He was four shots back of winner Francesco Molinari.
“If I’m able to put in some good work (Saturday), then I will be in contention Sunday. At that point, it will be just more of trying to win a golf tournament. It won’t matter what tournament it is.”