Last Saturday was one of the rare Saturdays you get throughout the course of a golf season. The type where, if you weren’t paying attention to the golf, someone or something tipped you off to what was going on (in this case, another Patrick Reed rules saga), and you immediately dropped whatever you were doing and ran to the nearest TV. It was the type of Saturday that only happens a handful of times all year, the type that usually always involves either Tiger Woods or some sort of controversial situation.
Thanks to Jordan Spieth, we had to wait all of seven days for another one of those rare Saturdays. His third-round 61 at the Waste Management Phoenix Open caused massive chatter in the golf world, and, more importantly, put him in a tie at the top with Xander Schauffele through 54 holes. And it had everybody asking the question we’ve seemingly been asking for three years now: Is Jordan Spieth back?
Yes, it’s officially time to get excited about Jordan Spieth
Since the final round of the 2018 Masters, the golf world has collectively attempted to declare Spieth “back” no less than one million times (ballpark figure). Many of those declarations came after a birdie barrage on a Thursday or a Friday, and they almost always proved to be premature. On a few rare occasions (the 2019 PGA at Bethpage; the 2019 Northern Trust at Liberty National; the 2020 Charles Schwab), Spieth was able to hang on for dear life on the weekend and post some high finishes. But at no point did he come truly close to closing the deal for the first time since the 2017 Open Championship In 2020, he ranked 165th in Round 3 scoring and 147th in Round 4. In 2019, 170th and 187th. For a guy with 14 professional victories, three of them in majors, and all of them before he turned 24, these Saturday and Sunday swoons were legitimately inexplicable.
That is precisely why this time is so much different. On this Saturday at the WMPO, Spieth seemingly exorcised all of those weekend demons by matching his career-low round of 61, which featured 10 (!) birdies, the most he’s ever made in one round in his career. This was the Saturday we’ve waited four years for. It was the full Spieth experience. He was bouncing around TPC Scottsdale with that infectious energy we came to know and love. He was talking to his golf ball. He was raining in putts from the parking lot. Hell, he even broke out the signature point, though it was at a fan who fell out of his chair near the 17th green, and not at caddie Michael Greller. Considering all this, it is 100 percent officially time to be excited about the potential “back”-ness of Jordan Spieth.
Of course, the very tiny problem with all of this is that they do not hand out trophies on Saturdays. He is obviously well aware of that.
“It’s been a long process for me,” Spieth said post round. “And it’s by no means done, but it’s progressing, and it’s really good to have a round like today where I felt like I can get more out of a round than maybe I deserved.”
Spieth also spoke of feeling like he got back to “playing golf” on Saturday, which is how he was beginning to reset the record books between 2015 and 2017. He quite literally played golf, whether that meant scrambling his face off after hitting a drive off the property, shaping shots or willing in putts, there was nobody better at playing golf and getting way more out of his rounds than he deserved than Spieth. He’s not truly back until he wins again, but Saturday should be considered his biggest “small victory” of this long process yet. He got back to playing golf, and appeared to have as much fun doing it as everyone had watching it.
Xander Schauffele is the 1,000-pound elephant in the room
Just to be clear, no one is rooting against Xander Schauffele on Sunday, but it’s fair to say a lot of folks will be cheering a harder for Spieth. But Schauffele has gone through quite a winless drought of his own, albeit a much shorter one. The difference between he and Spieth, though, is that Schauffele has come close to winning on numerous occasions since his last victory at the 2019 Sentry TOC. Seven times a runner-up, in fact. It stands to reason that that could give him a bit of a mental edge, having been in the fire much more recently and much more often, not to mention the fact that the pressure is all on Spieth. Xander’s reputation is that of a quiet killer, but there would be absolutely nothing quiet about him spoiling the Spieth party on Sunday.
Oh, there are a couple of other decent players chasing too
Over his last 36 holes, Justin Thomas is 13 under, which has him just four off the lead and within striking distance. Should he go crazy low and win on Sunday, it would mark his 10th victory since Spieth’s last win at Royal Birkdale. And yet, on Saturday, it felt like Thomas was back to being “Jordan Spieth’s good buddy.” In reality, he’s owned him in every way over the last 3 1/2 years.
In addition to Thomas lurking, there’s Scottie Scheffler (15 under, three back), Louis Oosthuzien (14 under, four back) and Brooks Koepka (13 under, five back), who all have the ability to make an early charge and apply some serious pressure. Scheffler is hungry for his first tour win, Oosthuizen is still in search of his first win on American soil, and Koepka, like Spieth, is eager to end a slump of his own. Jordan picked a bad week to finally snap out of it. He will get everyone’s proverbial “best punch” on Sunday.
Kyoung-Hoon Lee from the freaking clouds
No, we didn’t forget about you, Kyoung-Hoon Lee. The 29-year-old from South Korea is very quietly also at 15 under and will play in the second-to-last group on Sunday, along with Oosthuizen and Thomas. If his presence in that trio feels out of nowhere, that’s because it is out of freaking NOWHERE. Lee, who is currently ranked 263rd in the world, has not posted a top-10 finish since the 2019 RSM Classic. Since January of 2020, he’s made 29 starts, missed the cut in 13 of them, and finished inside the top 20 just three times, only one of which came since the tour’s restart. Outside of the RSM, he’s only had a few other high finishes, so he’s wading into unchartered waters on Sunday. One thing going his way—he will have the absolute least amount of pressure on him as any guy in contention. No one’s expecting KH Lee to steal this thing, which could be the exact recipe he needs to do just that.