Jordan Spieth is back to playing near his apex despite most efforts not culminating in victories

Golf is both humorous and cruel. It is funny and wicked. It giveth and it taketh away. Take Jordan Spieth’s 2021. Since his 61 on Saturday during the Phoenix Open in February at TPC Scottsdale, Spieth has been a phoenix rising — from nearly outside the top 100 in the world to the precipice of the top 10 — from the ashes. However, in one of the great statistical years of his career, he still has just one win to show for his efforts. Golf is both rewarding and elusive.

The numbers are actually a bit startling. Since the calendar flipped in January, only Jon Rahm has a better overall strokes-gained number, according to Data Golf. Rahm is at 2.57 strokes gained per round, Spieth is at 2.44. Nobody else is above 2.10. You can compare this to last year (Spieth ranked No. 95) and the year before it (36th). But really, we should compare it to his two best years ever.

Spieth won five times in 2015 and three more in 2017. They were, almost without question, the best he has ever played this sport. In 2015, he gained 2.54 strokes per round. In 2017, he gained 2.47. Again, he’s at 2.44 this year. He won eight tournaments in those two years combined, and though he’s playing at nearly the exact same statistical clip this time around, the wins just have not fallen his way.

2015 2.54 1.80 5
2016 2.46 1.31 2
2017 2.47 2.03 3
2018 1.29 1.12 0
2019 0.84 -0.14 0
2020 0.20 0.54 0
2021 2.44 1.75 1

There have been near misses. After winning the Texas Open in April, he finished T3 at the Masters, solo second at the Charles Schwab Challenge and solo second at the Open Championship. He has not finished worse than 30th in a tournament since the Players Championship concluded in March, and his top-10 percentage in that span is 75%.

To indicate how thin the margin between wins and losses is, though, consider how his Open Championship ended. Spieth missed a putt on No. 18 in Round 3 from a jaw-dropping distance. The PGA Tour make percentage from where his putt was from (around 3 feet) is 95%. On Sunday at Royal St. George’s, Collin Morikawa made an equally shocking birdie putt on the par-5 14th hole from around 25 feet. The make percentage from there is 10%.

If you do the math on those two independent events going the exact way they did, there was a 0.5% chance of them both happening. Conversely, there was an 85% chance of them both going the other way, which would have been a two-stroke swing and led to a playoff.

That’s not to denigrate what Morikawa did. He made the putts while Spieth did not. It’s simply depicting just how preposterously tiny the difference between winning a tournament and not winning a tournament actually is. When you look at it from that angle, it’s actually pretty easy to see how you could have such a similar statistical campaign and win only 20% or 33% of the tournaments you won in prior years.

The numbers paint a picture that wins might be about to fall for Spieth. Or they may not be, which is the entire point I’m trying to make here. It’s also worth noting with Spieth that his Sunday scoring average is not what it should be. He’s in the top 50 on the PGA Tour in the first three rounds this season but 124th in Round 4. That is certainly a big variable when it comes to looking at his season-long quest to shut down tournaments.

Who has had a better year than Spieth? Jon Rahm and Collin Morikawa, certainly. Perhaps Louis Oosthuizen, as well. After that? I suppose you could throw Phil Mickelson and Hideki Matsuyama at it since they both won majors, but overall Spieth has been so much better than both of them. He has, nearly unquestionably, been one of the five best golfers in the world so far in 2021.

He’s giving himself real chances to win golf tournaments, which was not the case for most of the last three years. That’s the fun part, both for him and for those who enjoy the angsty carnival ride he ushers folks onto during the weekend at these events. He’s also played himself onto the Ryder Cup team and has set up a 2022 in which we can reasonably project him as a legitimate threat at every tournament in which he plays.

That has not been the case for a while (though I still tried to will it into existence!). Though Spieth’s season has not culminated in many updates to the Wikipedia page that tracks his wins, he’s playing at the Spieth-ian level we grew accustomed to early in his career, and that means the payoff is almost certainly coming.



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