Spieth still trying to get back to being the golfer he was

© Michael Madrid-USA TODAY Sports

Art Spander

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — He finished strong, a birdie on 17. Sure, Jordan Spieth after a 2-under 70 is a mile out of the lead. But he played a much tougher course, Spyglass Hill, than the guy, Nick Taylor, who shot a 63 at Monterey Peninsula.

Besides, what Spieth wants primarily is progress. He would love a win of course, something he hasn’t had in two and a half years. Yet the idea, as it has been for too long, is to get back to the type of golf that made him a star, a young Tiger Woods, if you will.

So, one day into the 2020 AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, with its course rotations, with its celebrity amateurs — how about Peyton and Eli Manning, for a start? — with its great course and panoramas of waves crashing and sea otters floating, there’s something positive for Spieth.

Which is a change. Because for months, almost everything about Spieth’s golf has been negative.

Such a fickle, unpredictable game, golf. You own it, and then it owns you, drives you a bit crazy because your drives suddenly go every direction but the proper one, has you wanting to fall into a hole because inexplicably your putts won’t drop into the cup.

For a couple years there, starting in 2015 when he began the season by winning the first two majors, the Masters and U.S, Open, Spieth, in his early 20s, was brilliant.

Then in 2017 he took the British Open, rallying with one birdie after another. AT&T offered a Spieth bobblehead. Under Armour made him their top golfing attraction.

Until he became the new mystery. Every story was headlined, “What’s wrong with Spieth?” There was no definitive answer, other than that his putting, the part of the game in which he was most proficient, the part of the game that determines champions, had gone bad. That apparently messed up his driving and iron play.

He’s worked to make corrections. But even for a golfer who in his seven years since turning pro in 2013 had won 11 times, who once was No. 1 in the world rankings (now he’s dropped out of the top 50), the task isn’t easy.

It’s as much an issue of undoing, changing the way you grip a club, relearning the way to swing, as of doing.

“That’s something that takes two to three months to nail down,” Spieth, now 26, told Golf Digest. There’s discomfort. There’s doubt.

“It’s been an unusual feeling for me,” said Spieth, ”and it’s been difficult to trust, especially without having my grip in the perfect place. I miss a lot of left shots, given the grip. My hands are pretty good, and I’ll be able to figure it out in a couple weeks, but I did it with the idea we have a couple of months before the first major.”

That’s the Masters, in early April. But he probably needs to make a run in any tournament before then. He missed the cut a week ago, of course, in the Waste Management Phoenix Open, and was 55th in the Farmers Open at Torrey Pines the week before that.

“There’s no science behind it,” two-time Masters champ Bubba Watson told PGATour.com about success. ”You just make putts. When I played with him (last week at Phoenix), he hit a lot of putts that just didn’t go in.

“A swing here, a swing there, a missed par putt — you make a quick bogey or miss the birdie putt after hitting some good shots. And that’s all the round is.”

On the fairways or in the rough, or on the greens. But in the mind, it’s so much more. It’s questioning your ability, wondering about your talent. Asking how everything that had gone so right could go so wrong.

“I couldn’t do the easy part for me, which is the putting,” Spieth said after failing to get to the weekend at Phoenix. “That’s what’s frustrating. It’s not like overall frustration. I’ve had plenty of that. I’m on the rebound now.”

Even if it doesn’t show in his scores.