The year is 2015. A 22 year old, wide eyed kid from Dallas enters the Masters on the heels of one of the most successful second year campaigns in the history of the PGA Tour. Less than three years removed from spending his nights in a college dorm room in Austin, Spieth has established himself as the hottest player in the planet. In his three starts prior to the Masters, Spieth won the Valspar Championship, finished runner-up at the Valero Texas Open, and lost in a playoff at the Shell Houston Open. The Masters will be his first start as the newly minted fourth ranked player in the world.
A first round 64 gives him a three shot lead, which sets the record for the youngest player to lead the Masters after round one. He misses out on tying Nick Price and Greg Norman’s course record by a single stroke. A second round 66 breaks the 36-hole scoring record. A steady, third round 69 breaks the 54 hole scoring record. Spieth’s inevitable coming out party was already a foregone conclusion before a single shot was hit on Sunday. His only blemish came in the form of an 18th hole bogey that prevented him from tying Tiger Woods’ 1997 Masters scoring record. Spieth set the record for the most birdies in the Masters with 28, and he became the second youngest player to ever win the Masters. His victory was the first wire to wire Masters win since Raymond Floyd in 1976.
Less than two months later, Jordan Spieth captured the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay. While more anti-climactic in its nature due to Dustin Johnson’s infamous three-putt from 12 feet on the 18th hole, Spieth was still now in rarified air. With the victory at Chambers, he became only the sixth player ever to win the Masters and U.S. Open in the same year, and the first since Tiger Woods in 2002. The only other four golfers to accomplish that feat are Craig Wood, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, and Jack Nicklaus. Spieth was now the fourth youngest player to win multiple major championships, and the youngest winner of the U.S. Open since Bobby Jones in 1923.
By the end of 2015, Spieth had become the number one player in the world after a fourth at the Open Championship and a runner-up at the PGA Championship. There have been few seasons in golf history where a player possessed a legitimate chance to win all four major championships. Spieth captured two, and he was right there at St. Andrews and Whistling Straits as well. He swept all of the major awards: PGA Player of the Year, Vardon Trophy, Byron Nelson Award, and the Arnold Palmer Award. He capped off his season with a victory at East Lake, claiming the FedEx Cup and an extra $10 million dollars. Barely able to legally buy a drink, Spieth had reached the top of the sport’s mountaintop.
I mention all of this to highlight the fleeting nature of our sport. We’d never see the phenom reach similar heights. In 2016, Spieth infamously suffered one of the biggest collapses in Masters history. He entered the back-nine on Sunday with a five stroke lead, before carding a quadruple bogey on 12 after rinsing two balls into Rae’s Creek. Spieth briefly returned to glory after a magical four days at Royal Birkdale, his third and final major championship to date.
Between 2015 and 2017, Spieth hovered around a +2.5 strokes per round golfer. He was unequivocally the best player in the world during this time period. In 73 starts over that three year stretch, Spieth recorded 54 top-20 finishes, 30 top-five finishes, 12 wins, and three majors. It remains one of the greatest three year stretches in golf history. In the six years since, Spieth has never crossed the +2 strokes gained threshold again. He gained 1.5 strokes per round in 2021, which was the only year that he came within a stroke per round of the player that he was from 2015-2017. In 134 starts between 2018 and 2023, Spieth has only recorded two world-wide wide wins, which came at the Valero Texas Open and RBC Heritage, two middle of the road PGA Tour events. Now at 30 years old, a father of two, and coming off the heels of a Ryder Cup loss where he was virtually unplayable, the domination we witnessed in 2015 at Augusta feels a part of a bygone era.
Many look back on Spieth’s dominance as a product of a hot putter, or “Magic Beans,” a popular Twitter term utilized to describe Spieth’s inexplicable nature to get the ball in the hole without always passing the eye test. “Magic Beans” may be a useful description to recount Spieth’s last six years, but it’s not a remotely accurate way to look back on his peak. Between 2015 and 2017, Spieth was arguably the most well-rounded golfer in the world.
- SG: OTT: +0.52
- SG: APP: +0.73
- SG: ARG: +0.43
- SG: P: +0.63
- SG: OTT: +0.12
- SG: APP: +0.38
- SG: ARG: +0.35
- SG: P: +0.21
As we can see, Spieth’s driver has declined by 0.4 of a stroke, his irons have declined by 0.35 of a stroke, his short game essentially remained the same, and his putter has declined by 0.42 of a stroke. The story of Spieth’s decline is a fairly equal reduction of all skills, outside of his around the green play. There’s really not just one aspect of his game that broke. It’s rather that he simply got nearly half a stroke worse at the three most important aspects of golf.
Spieth is still a solid iron player, an above average driver of the ball, with a borderline elite short game and a putter that comes and goes. Yet over the last calendar year, he’s not a top-15 player in the world in any of the four major stat categories, including short game. The problem with Spieth is that he’s stuck in the really good zone, yet seemingly miles away from elite. The three time major winner is undeniably still one of the 25 to 30 best golfers in the world, but he’s as far as he’s ever been from the best.
Spieth has played nearly identical golf across 2022 and 2023. He teed it up 23 times in each of the last two years, recorded 10 and 11 top-20s, three and five top-fives, with one win in 2022, and one playoff loss in 2023, both at the same tournament. His putting incrementally improved in 2023, but his ball-striking got slightly worse.
When a player gets marginally worse at nearly ever aspect of his game, it’s a lot more challenging to feel confident about their return to glory. For example, Scottie Scheffler got half of a stroke worse per round on the greens last year. It’s incredibly easy to identify the problem (and solution) in that case. Spend more time on the putting green, change grips, hire a new putting coach. In Spieth’s case however, we saw a gradual decline in play in all aspects, outside of his spectacular short game, which has remained up to snuff. It’s more challenging for me to pinpoint what should be the most important area of focus. When Spieth was at his best, he was an above average driver of the ball, with an elite short game, and a top-five iron player in the world. He may be remembered as Mr. Magic Beans, and he certainly putted great during that era, but his best season on the greens actually came in 2019, the beginning of his major decline.
After a terrible three year stretch off the tee between 2019 and 2021, where he lost an average of 0.15 strokes per round off the tee, Spieth has returned to driving the ball in the +0.4 zone, which does approach his +0.52 level between 2015 and 2017. It’s really the iron play that is Spieth’s smoking gun. In 2017, Spieth gained 1.15 strokes per round on approach. He was undeniably the best iron player in the world, and this was his best season in any single metric of his career. He’s never come within a half of a stroke of that since, in any statistical category!
I think we’re all rooting for a Spieth comeback, but that 22-year-old kid went wire to wire at Augusta isn’t walking through that door any time soon. Since he finished first and second at the U.S. Open and PGA Championship in 2015, Spieth has recorded just one top-five in 17 appearances at the two brutish U.S. Major Championship not held in the comfy confines of Magnolia Lane. PGA Championship and U.S. Open venues have undeniably moved away from Spieth in recent years, and his lack of elite driving has been severely exposed at 7,500 yard courses with paper-thin driving corridors. A far more likely outcome for Spieth is catching lightning in a bottle across four magical days at Augusta or an Open. We’ve seen Tiger triumph at Augusta based on course knowledge with a severely diminished skill profile, and the Open Championship remains the major that incorporates the most volatility and randomness. Spieth’s 2021 runner-up finish at St. George’s remains his closest call at a major in the last six years.
It will be fascinating to watch Spieth’s career trajectory as he enters his thirties. His body is different from what it was when he was 22. His swing is different, and with two young children, I’d imagine his priorities are different as well. The 2023 iteration of Spieth is still completely intoxicating to watch. There are still moments of greatness, with the occasional beautiful disaster mixed in as well. Yet for those of us old enough to remember, it’s hard not watch this version of Spieth with a forlorn nostalgia.