Dallas resident Jordan Spieth, the reigning Masters champion, has watched Jason Day slip past him in both the world golf rankings and the last major tournament contested in professional golf.
But Spieth, 22, considers himself back in his comfort zone heading into Thursday’s opening round of the Masters Tournament and realizes a successful title defense in Augusta, Ga., would go a long way toward recapturing the top spot in the world rankings from Day, winner of the 2015 PGA Championship.
Although he concedes that Day “certainly deserves that position right now,” the No. 2 player in the world rankings considers his game tracking in a better direction than most pundits realize after last week’s 13th-place finish at the Houston Open.
Spieth’s logic: He put eight balls in the water over four rounds and still finished only seven strokes behind the winner, Jim Herman.
“If I keep it out of the water, we win,” said Spieth, who has a history of avoiding water-related issues at Augusta National Golf Club, where he has finished first (2015) and second (2014) in two career appearances. “I can fix that. Going into the Masters, everything is exactly where it was last year. It’s right where we want it to be. All the boxes are checked.”
Spieth expressed similar sentiments leading into last year’s event, when he opened with a 64 on his way to a wire-to-wire victory that matched the tournament scoring record (18-under par).
After serving Texas barbecue to attendees at Tuesday night’s champions dinner, Spieth said he sees no reason why the game plan he has used at Augusta the past two years cannot continue to sustain him at a course where he has yet to post an over-par score.
“We had a correct formula last year,” Spieth said. “I think that we can just kind of use that again. I don’t think I have to guard against much because I don’t think it will feel much different. I might just feel a little bit more comfortable, possibly. It’s not like I’m chasing my first major.”
From a historical standpoint, no golfer has shown a greater comfort level around the Augusta layout more quickly than Spieth, who is a combined 23-under par through his first eight rounds.
His career scoring average is 69.13 at the par-72 venue. He has sub-par scoring totals on the course’s par-3 holes (3 under), par-4 holes (3 under) and par-5 holes (17 under), a rarity among Masters competitors.
By comparison, Tiger Woods won in 1997 as a PGA Tour rookie. But the four-time champ failed to break par in his first six rounds at the course while competing as an amateur in 1995 (tied for 41st) and 1996 (missed cut).
Among Hall of Famers with multiple Masters titles, six-time champ Jack Nicklaus did not break 70 until his 16th career round in Augusta. Spieth did it in round No. 5. Four-time champ Arnold Palmer was 21-over through his first 12 rounds at the course. Spieth could shoot 43-over in four rounds this week and still be ahead of that pace.
Similar comparisons can be made to other legendary golfers, which puts Spieth in rare company in the estimation of Ben Crenshaw, an Austin resident and two-time Masters champion. Crenshaw estimated that most golfers need at least four tournament appearances in Augusta before they feel comfortable enough to contend at the venue.
At his current pace, Spieth’s fourth visit could end with his third green jacket. Crenshaw said Spieth’s uncanny maturity has allowed him to speed up the learning curve.
“He has another dimension about him,” Crenshaw said. “With Augusta, it’s not about how many times you’ve played it. It’s about how well you understand it.”
Ryan Palmer, a Colleyville resident and five-time Masters competitor, said Spieth is a good fit for Augusta because the course requires a cerebral, strategic approach that plays to his strengths.
“He’s definitely got the head on his shoulders and the game to do it,” Palmer said.
In particular, Spieth has the putting touch. A natural left-hander who plays golf right-handed (the opposite of Phil Mickelson), Spieth uses a cross-handed putting stroke that dramatically improved his feel on the greens when he adopted it as a teenager.
“When I went cross-handed, it automatically lined up everything,” Spieth said. “I have a lot of feel in my left hand. I actually think that was pretty natural to me.”
Spieth, a golf historian, also has an innate comfort level on the Augusta course.
“I’ve just kind of had an eye for it,” Spieth said. “I’ve also studied it from when I was 8 years old. I love courses where you have to use your imagination and a lot of feel, so I have a passion for it.
“Sure, I’m putting pressure on myself to contend this year, just like last year. And I feel like I’m in form as well.”
Thursday-Friday, ESPN; Saturday-Sunday, KTVT/11