AUGUSTA, Ga. — The process is far from complete, with plenty of work to be done. The prolonged slump might be a thing of the past, but getting his game to the level of those bygone days is still the goal for Jordan Spieth.
He’s on another leaderboard, this time at the Masters, and that is a nice feeling for him after all those months and months of turmoil. And it is especially gratifying coming off a victory last Sunday at the Valero Texas Open, where Spieth won for the first time in nearly four years.
That will certainly come in handy this weekend at Augusta National, where Spieth won’t have to answer questions — from himself, from the outside world — about whether he can win again.
And so now it’s onto a bigger prize after an impressive 68 during the second round saw him climb the leaderboard and into a tie for fourth, just two shots behind 36-hole leader Justin Rose.
A fourth major title is within reach at a place he knows well. He also knows not everything is perfect.
“I wish that it felt like everything led to peaking here, but I’m honestly just trying to have things move 5 percent closer than they did last week to structurally being where I am in the swing,” Spieth said Friday. “I’m putting some very average swings on it, and I’m putting some good ones on it still.
“There’s more good ones than there was a month ago, and there were more than a month before that. I’m not in a place where I can say I’m standing up and just striping it, but I’m in a place where I can manage it and I can manage around this golf course.”
Spieth, 27, is not playing as he did in 2015, when he won five times, including the Masters, U.S. Open and claimed the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup. He’s not even playing as he did in 2016, when he took a five-shot lead to the back nine at Augusta National and imploded in three holes to hand the tournament to Danny Willett.
There were more victories in 2016 and 2017, including an epic final nine at Royal Birkdale to capture The Open for a third major title and 11th PGA Tour title.
Then the winning stopped — until last week.
Worse still, he barely contended in a tournament for two years. And after missing the cut at the Farmers Insurance Open in February, Spieth dropped to 92nd in the world. He was No. 1 in 2017.
Along the way, there was an undisclosed injury that might have impacted his grip and led to some bad habits and the corresponding troubles that saw him struggling to hit fairways and greens.
Slowly he has emerged, contending this year at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am and Arnold Palmer Invitational.
His win on Sunday, when he shot a final-round 66 to hold off Charley Hoffman by two strokes, provided immense confidence. Not only is he now 38th in the world, but Spieth had put together a strong final round when the tournament was at stake. And he had finally captured that elusive 12th PGA Tour victory.
Now he’s in position through 36 holes at a tournament where he’s enjoyed considerable success.
In seven previous tournaments, he has four top-3 finishes, including the 2015 victory that was sandwiched by T-2s in 2014 and 2016. He shot a final-round 64 in 2018 to finish third, two strokes behind winner Patrick Reed.
Spieth drove down Magnolia Lane on Monday fresh off his victory in Texas believing he could win this week. He might not have felt that strongly if not for that win last week.
Perhaps the celebration after the Valero Texas Open had to be muted, given the stakes this week. But it sure had to be good unloading his belongings, getting settled in the Champions Locker Room and embarking on another opportunity knowing what he had just accomplished.
“I’m in a position now to think (about winning) for sure, but I would have been pleased with being two back, especially after last week,” he said. “For me, I think less is more. Rest is key.
“I’m happy that the golf course has the opportunity to play more and more difficult over the weekend. I think that personally I’m looking forward to that kind of challenge, and I think that could be an advantage to me if I’m in control of the ball.”
For the most part, that has been the case. Spieth has hit 22 of 28 fairways. He’s hit 30 of 36 greens, one of the more crucial stats in winning the Masters. The 7 he made at the ninth in Thursday’s first round could haunt him. Only four players in Masters history have won the tournament with a 7 on their card — and those came at par 5s. Nobody has ever had a triple and won.
But the version of Spieth who is in contention here is more the player that Will Zalatoris is used to seeing from their junior days in Dallas. Zalatoris, 24, who is playing in his first Masters, tied for sixth last year at the U.S. Open, will be in the final group alongside Rose on Saturday. Zalatoris has played a lot of golf with Spieth over the years. “He’s always been a world-beater at such a young age,” Zalatoris said. “I’ve seen him do some of the most miraculous things playing little games at home.”
Those miracles had seemingly dried up for Spieth. Now he’s feeling the magic again, although it was never going to be easy. Not with the likes of Rose, a seasoned veteran who has considerable success at Augusta without winning, out front. Not when seasoned players such as Marc Leishman, Tony Finau and buddy Justin Thomas are in pursuit.
Then again, Spieth has three majors. The rest of the top 10 have two. He’s climbed a long way back to this point. The journey continues this weekend.