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Sport The one-year postponement of the Ryder Cup proved a great benefit for Jordan Spieth, who has rediscovered his game

14:10  21 september  2021
14:10  21 september  2021 Source:   golfweek.com

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Jordan Spieth was only six years old at the time of the 1999 Ryder Cup, so his memories from watching his fellow Dallas native Justin Leonard hole one of the most memorable putts in Ryder Cup history aren’t that vivid, but it still made a lasting impression.

Jordan Spieth wearing a baseball uniform throwing a ball: Ryder Cup © Provided by Golfweek Ryder Cup

“It was something that I made sure I watched,” said Spieth of the biennial competition. “Growing up as a golfer, the Ryder Cup was the ultimate goal for me. That and the Masters are the two events I wanted to win in my life.”

Spieth has lived both those dreams, winning the Masters in 2015 and representing Team USA in its victory on home soil in 2016 at Hazeltine. As a testament to how much the Ryder Cup means to Spieth, the biggest piece of artwork at his house is of his first tee shot in Ryder Cup competition at the 2014 matches at Gleneagles in Scotland and hangs in a sitting room. Only Sergio Garcia, who was 19 when he made his debut in 1999, and Horton Smith in 1927, were younger than Spieth when he played in the 2014 Ryder Cup at age 21.

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“It’s a beautiful painting,” Spieth says. “I don’t have anything around the house of myself up except for that, and it’s that special to me. We didn’t win the Ryder Cup. I didn’t make a putt to win the match there. It was just that feeling. You hear the echoes of the chants through the Scottish, you know, hill country back to the range, and you know that you’re about to walk into an away game, which we don’t ever really experience.

“I hit a great shot, which was what makes me so excited about that painting, because it’s as nervous as I’ve ever been and it was probably the best 3-wood I’ve ever hit. I take confidence every time I see that.”

Confidence is knowing your best golf is still to come. Spieth, 28, has experienced the highest of highs in the game, winning three major championships and 10 PGA Tour titles, all by the age of 23. But since he won the 2017 British Open at Royal Birkdale to move within a PGA Championship victory of a career Grand Slam, Spieth had fallen on hard times. As a matter of fact, he’s the first to admit that he’s been the biggest beneficiary of the Ryder Cup being postponed a year.

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“I was pretty far down the list,” he says.

As late as the Waste Management Phoenix Open in February, Spieth ranked 37th in the U.S. Ryder Cup point standings, one spot ahead of Peter Malnati. Spieth, who was the second-youngest player to reach World No. 1, had stumbled to No. 92 in the world, his poorest ranking since the summer of 2013, prior to his debut victory at the John Deere Classic. He had become a Ryder Cup afterthought.

Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee predicted that Spieth was “on his way to oblivion,” and compared his career trajectory to Ian Baker-Finch and David Duval, two former major champions who lost their games and never rediscovered their confidence.

“It’s like a physical wound and some of them will heal up and some of them will kill you,” Chamblee said. “Their descent is a reminder to all of us that the golf swing is ephemeral. You can lose it in the blink of an eye.”

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But Chamblee turned out to be wrong. Spieth was far from finished.

Credit for his turnaround can be attributed to going from an average approach player in 2020 to an elite one this year, improving nearly 100 spots in Strokes Gained: Approach compared to this time a year ago. Coincidentally, his resurgence began just days after Chamblee delivered his harsh assessment.

a man holding a sign: Waste Management Phoenix Open © Provided by Golfweek Waste Management Phoenix Open

Jordan Spieth reacts after making his birdie putt on the 16th hole during round three of the Waste Management Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale. Photo by Rob Schumacher/The Arizona Republic

In the third round at Phoenix, Spieth sizzled to a 61 and was tied for the 54-hole lead. He led by two going into the final round at Pebble Beach. He was two behind going into the last day at Bay Hill. On each occasion, he showed flashes of his former self, but his game remained a work in progress.

As much as Spieth wanted to end his winless drought and put questions about his mystifying slump to bed, he also focused on another positive byproduct: qualifying for the Ryder Cup team.

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“The Ryder Cup was my No. 1 kind of lofty goal coming into this calendar year,” he says. “I thought I really had to play well in the majors, and if I can play well elsewhere, as well, that would be awesome.”

After 82 events and 1,351 days between hoisting trophies, Spieth enjoyed that winning feeling again at the Valero Texas Open in April, closing with a 6-under 66 to edge Charley Hoffman by two strokes.

“This is a monumental win for me,” Spieth said at the time. “It’s been a long road. There were a lot of times that I didn’t know I would be here.”

Spieth is one of the most open and honest players, letting every golf fan hear his raw emotion as he talks to his ball and his caddie, Michael Greller, but he kept the trials and tribulations of his journey through the wilderness to regain his control off the tee and sharp-shooting approach game within his inner circle. But in the thrill of victory, Spieth opened a vein and gave a window into how much it meant to him to be on top again.

“I hit balls till my hands bled and I wasn’t doing the right thing and I just went home and thought about it. Lost sleep,” he shared in the aftermath of his victory. “This sport can take you a lot of different directions.”

Spieth kept his upward-trending trajectory going with nine top-10s and 13 top-25s in 22 starts of the 2020-21 season through the Wyndham Championship. That included a tie for third at the Masters and runner-up at the Open Championship, where he shot four rounds in the 60s, including playing the last 12 holes of the final round in 6 under. Still, he couldn’t catch Collin Morikawa and rued his three-putt at 18 on Saturday as the difference-maker.

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“The finish yesterday was about as upset as I’ve taken a finish of a round to the house,” Spieth said of his missed 2-foot putt. “I walked in and I said, ‘Is there something that I can break?’ I knew that was so important because I would have been in the final group.”

The result may have fallen short of etching his name on the Claret Jug again, but it was further confirmation that Spieth had returned to the upper echelon of the PGA Tour and deserved to be a captain’s pick by Steve Stricker, his partner when Spieth made his debut representing Team USA in the pro ranks at the 2013 Presidents Cup.

“He carried me the first nine holes of my first match with him,” Spieth recalls. “Steve came up to me and said, ‘When are you finally going to start playing?’ ”

Moments such as that broke the tension and Spieth quickly has established himself as the backbone of America’s side.

“In 2014, he was ‘Jordan the Kid,’ ” says Webb Simpson, his Ryder Cup teammate in 2014 and 2018. “He’s always been able to get the team fired up with how he plays. Now, he’s more willing to speak up. That comes with age and experience. He’s really come into his own.”

“He’s like our Ian Poulter,” added Rickie Fowler, referring to how both players seem capable of willing themselves and their teammates to win points. “He thrives on being in the biggest moments.”

Originally, Spieth formed a formidable Ryder Cup duo with Patrick Reed in Foursomes and Four-Ball matches in 2014 and 2016. But as Matt Kuchar noted, “Jordan is one of those guys who is a chameleon and can play with anybody.”

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In 2018, Spieth branched out and joined forces with his longtime pal Justin Thomas in what has the potential to be a turnkey pairing for the next decade and beyond.

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Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas during the morning fourball matches of the 2018 Ryder Cup at Le Golf National in Paris. Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images

“We’ve talked about this really for so long,” Thomas explained in France. “There’s not a partner in the world I’d rather have a chance to go out here with. To be out here and do it at the biggest stage, there’s nothing better than getting a point for your team. Playing your golf is playing your golf, but getting a point for your team, for your country is huge.”

Jim Furyk, the U.S. captain in 2018 who rubberstamped the Spieth-Thomas pairing, said, “I love their feistiness. They play very, very well together. They understand each other’s games. Sometimes I’m not exactly sure what they are talking about; the language is a little different that they have. It’s like mental telepathy or something.”

Bottom line: They delivered three of a potential four points in France and it will come as no surprise if captain Stricker goes back to the well and sends these bosom buddies out four times again. Which is all the more reason why Spieth’s presence as a member of the American side as it tries to regain the Ryder Cup on home soil could be a difference-maker. Had the Ryder Cup not been delayed a year, even Spieth concedes that Stricker would have been hard-pressed to make a case to pick him.

“I almost felt like I got a little bit lucky with an extra half a year to a year to try and make the team,” he says. “I’m going to go in with the idea that this is where I belong, this is who I am and I’m supposed to come in and be a points leader for this team and that’s the goal.”

A Ryder Cup without Spieth would’ve been as unpleasant as playing the competition last year without fans. The Ryder Cup, at least from the American perspective, is simply better with his presence. As Fowler observed, he lives for these moments and already is envisioning a celebration that would top the one he enjoyed at Hazeltine.

“When you win a championship in team sports you get your parade, right? For us, that’s the Sunday afternoon after winning a Ryder Cup on U.S. soil, where everyone sticks around and you get to kind of party with everybody,” Fowler said. “That’s our parade. That’s what we look forward to.”

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