Spieth, Day set for 2020 turnaround
January 23, 2020
By Ben Everill, PGATOUR.COM
- Jordan Spieth and Jason Day are paired together for the first two rounds of the Farmers Insurance Open. (Getty Images)
SAN DIEGO – All they need is a spark.
Jordan Spieth and Jason Day took over the world of golf in 2015. History shows Spieth won the FedExCup and PGA TOUR Player of the Year, but Day was his only true challenger. Both had five wins apiece and became world No. 1 for the first time.
Spieth won the first two majors, was one shot out of a playoff in the third and runner-up in the fourth. Day led the second major through 54 holes despite collapsing on the course with vertigo a day prior, was also a shot out of a playoff in the third after holding the 54-hole lead and defeated Spieth in the fourth. Four of Day’s wins came in a six-start stretch.
It was incredible stuff from two gritty competitors who looked destined to be mainstays in the battle for the top spot for years to come. They were supposedly going to be the new “big three” with Rory McIlroy (who had won two majors in 2014) – rivaling what Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player did back in their time as giants of the game.
But things have not yet panned out that way. Indeed, both Spieth and Day already have Hall-of-Fame-worthy accomplishments. Spieth has 11 PGA TOUR wins, three of them majors, and a FedExCup. Day has 12 TOUR wins with a major and a PLAYERS Championship in there. But as it stands right now, Day is 44th in the world, Spieth 45th. They face falling outside the world top 50 for the first time since they initially joined the top 50. For Day, that was in 2010, while Spieth climbed up in 2013.
The reasons for the fall differ between the two. Spieth went down a few rabbit holes with his putting, at first, and then his swing. In 2018, he ranked 123rd in Strokes Gained: Putting. The Texan had been ninth in 2015, second in 2016 and 48th in 2017. Then when he regained his magic to be second on the greens in 2019, he lost his ball striking.
From 2015-18, Spieth ranked inside the top 50 on TOUR for Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee, but plummeted to 176th last season. He also dipped to 145th in Strokes Gained: Approach the Green, having been 33rd in 2018 and second in 2017.
Day on the other hand has had back issues, some family stress and an unsettled team environment. For years, his back has plagued him, most recently keeping him out of the Presidents Cup in his home country and it now has him on a limited ball count for practice. At his peak putting prowess (ranked first in 2016, second in 2018), Day would train for two and a half hours multiple times a week. Now, he is restricted to 30 minutes a day.
His mother was diagnosed with lung cancer and was originally given a dire prognosis before being able to fight her way into remission. Wife Ellie suffered a miscarriage in 2017 before the pair welcomed their third child in late 2018. In 2019, Day used four separate caddies and had issues with his training staff as back complications continued.
Day last won at the 2018 Wells Fargo Championship, closing in on two years ago. Spieth has to go back further - the 2017 Open Championship. Things have certainly changed for these two.
But on Thursday at Torrey Pines South Course, the two were paired together during the opening round of the Farmers Insurance Open and on a few occasions, a time warp threatened to open and return us to those heady days of 2015. While these were not the same two men we all saw so closely back then, you can still see the shadows of those characters if you look hard enough. It brings enough confidence to suggest their best will return, perhaps sooner rather than later. They just need to trust themselves - and find a spark.
After both suffered early bogeys, things felt a little lackluster in the group. Spieth was quick-stepping and muttering to himself and Day was slightly slumped as he walked. It is a telltale sign that the Australian is not at his peak mentally. At his best, he walks with a confident strut, his chest out and head up.
“It’s very hard to stay consistent over a long period of time. The hard thing is mentally willing yourself to want to do it again. You need to find a spark, some fire to get moving in the right direction. Sometimes you lose that.” Day told PGATOUR.COM prior to the tournament.
For Spieth, the demon he battles remains trying not to think technically and just let his game flow. He said pre-tournament he is over the “panic” stage and is comfortable being patient, as the quality work he’s done to return his full swing to its best starts to pay off. He has used 3D technology to try to get his swing back to when he was at his best and spent the offseason putting in mountains of effort.
“The comfort level isn’t quite where I want it to be where I am just seeing shots without having to think too much about mechanics,” he confirms. “But I like what I’m working on and knowing the more I trust it out here, the quicker it starts to get implemented.
“Big picture I have a really good frame of mind which should allow me to build some patience into getting my game where I want it to be.”
Back to the opening round. Spieth began his fight back with a great shot on the idyllic par-3 third to set up a birdie. He produced further birdies at the sixth, eighth and ninth holes with some great short-game work.
Day lifted his head and had a half strut after a brilliant fairway bunker shot on the fourth hole, but the close-range putt from above the hole didn’t fall. His putting routine was not as crisp as usual, perhaps a byproduct of the 30-minute limit.
Through six holes, the two-time champion of the event was three-over, but as he walked off the green, he looked into the crowd. He had been reminded there was a chance his mother Dening – in town from Australia for the West Coast swing – and Ellie were going to join the throng at the seventh hole near the clubhouse.
Soon after, Day holed out from a greenside bunker for birdie and added two more at nine and 10. Just the spark he was looking for.
Now the two were smiling. They walked a few fairways chatting away, perhaps reminiscing of the good old days. In fact, they were talking about Day’s penchant for staying in his RV at tournaments – turns out Spieth’s wife Annie thinks it might be a good idea. Funny enough, she had run into Ellie in the gallery and the pair were speaking about the very same thing.
But just as things appeared rosy, reality kicked back in. Both made a couple bogeys and came to the 18th hole looking for another spark to carry them into Friday and beyond. The par-5 finisher saw them both lay up before hitting a third to around 12 feet. Day went first and nailed it, acutely aware the two times he won the tournament he opened with a 73 on the South Course. Spieth went next and drilled his target. It was a round of 70, the best of his career on the course and just the second time under par.
Those birdies might not be ones that win this tournament. But they were clearly important in the bigger picture. With a large crowd around the 18th green and with the feeling it mattered, they both connected. It is all part of building confidence.
“I really felt like I trusted what we've been working on today, which was going to be the most difficult thing; if it feels uncomfortable, still to trust it,” Spieth said. “I still have some work, hopefully not very significant work, but I’m on the right track in my swing to get to where I feel I can be at that 2015 level again. I want it as bad or more than I did then. There is no complacency. And I believe the next run will be as fun as the first.”
For Day, the key will be his health. He has upped his rehab staff and has adjusted his swing to guard against further problems. With his off-course staff seemingly settled again and his mother in a good place, he now needs to trust his body. Only time without a setback will allow that after years of fear that the next problem is just moments away.
“I need to take the excuses out of my life,” Day said. “And we have started to do that. I felt like I was alone on an island for a while, but the team aspect feels better again now.
“Maybe the biggest positive is it’s the first time in a long time the things I am doing rehab-wise feeling like I’m getting to the right spot. And the same with my swing. If I can focus on that and feel healthy … the confidence will come back. And then when I can practice more, I’m sure the results will come also as those other issues won’t be in the back of my mind.”
Doubt can be a killer for all of us. But this pair gets closer to ridding themselves of those doubts every day. Will 2020 end like 2015 did? Maybe not … but dismiss the possibility at your peril.