What's Wrong with Jordan Spieth and Should We Be Worried?

Ben Alberstadt@benalberstadtFeatured ColumnistMarch 11, 2016

PALM HARBOR, FL - MARCH 10: Jordan Spieth prepares to putt on the tenth green during the first round of the Valspar Championship at Innisbrook Resort Copperhead Course on March 10, 2016 in Palm Harbor, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)
Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

Jordan Spieth was four over through his first seven holes in his opening round at the Valspar Championship, which was caused some sky-is-falling hysteria on social media.

ESPN’s Jason Sobel tweeted:

Jason Sobel @JasonSobelTAN

Hilarious scorching hot Twitter takes on Jordan Spieth based on seven holes in Tampa: --"He's no Tiger!" --"He's slumping!" --"He's done!"

Spieth’s contemporary, and a golfer accustomed to struggle, Rory McIlroy came to the world No. 1’s defense:

Rory McIlroy @McIlroyRory

No, he's not TW, he's not slumping and he's not done. He's a double major winning 22 year old. He'll be just fine!! https://t.co/z0JHj72SiH

The 22-year-old signed for a first-round, five-over 76 that left him nine strokes off the leader’s pace.

After his round, Spieth said:

Typically, my history (on my off days), I'm able to hold that around even par and I'm just shooting too high a number. (I) didn't quite squeak out even today, even though it was an even kind of round, and hopefully less wind tomorrow and I can work hard to play on the weekend.

Spieth hit just six of 18 greens in regulation, losing 1.910 strokes to the field from tee to green and .868 with his usually steady putter. The poor opening round comes on the heels of a missed cut two starts ago at the Northern Trust Open, where he fired a career-worse 79, and a ho-hum finish at the WGC-Cadillac Championship where he carded a pair of 73s on the weekend. Spieth’s opening 76 was his fifth over-par round in his last nine.

Spieth opened his second round with a badly pull-hooked drive but rebounded nicely after an opening bogey. Starting his day outside the cut line, Spieth carded an opening-nine two-under 34 to slide inside the cut line. Spieth made the cut by a stroke thanks to the second-round, three-under 68. 

Disaster averted.

But what do we make of Spieth's recent run of play that hasn't cleared the high bar he has set? Is there real cause for concern? 

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Hot takes are coming from all corners. ForTheWin’s Luke Kerr-Dineen writes, in his aptly titled piece "Everybody needs to stop freaking out about Jordan Spieth’s 'slump'":

Playing golf like Spieth is good because [it] allows for smaller fluctuations within larger ones — in other words, he can win in lots of different ways, because his success doesn’t depend on one thing. But the problem is that Spieth also relies on all those wheels to be generally moving at the same time. Keeping all those plates spinning at once is harder than, say, continuing to hit the ball really far, but Spieth has mastered that art better than anyone else.

Also worth mentioning: Some regression to the mean is expected following a five-win season that included two majors.

Golf Digest’s Jamie Diaz filed an interesting look at Spieth’s struggles as well, pointing out that the golfer’s distances seemed to be off, which undermined his usually best-in-class course management. He also failed to bounce back in the way we expect elite players to do, instead firing off a string of bogeys.

Offering potential explanations from a "travel hangover" to the golfer putting too much pressure on himself, Diaz also offers the following take on Spieth’s swing:

But Spieth’s action looked quick on the West Coast. “Yeah, for whatever reason, my swing became extremely short,” he said at Doral, where he finished 73-73 to finish T-17. “And it wasn’t getting to parallel and therefore, my timing was just thrown off on a lot of shots that were played off uneven lies or with different wind conditions. I’ve been trying to just really load more and get more patient into my backswing. It’s tough to trust a lot of times, because it feels like you’re going to hit it out to the right.”

For what it’s worth then, Spieth is, by his own admission, struggling with his golf swing. As we saw in his opening round, swing struggles combined with distance control issues on shots hit on line can lead to a disappointing result.

With Shotlink data from such a limited number of tournaments, it’s imprudent to draw any far-reaching conclusions from Jordan Spieth’s stats thus far. Still, we’ll take a look.

Spieth is driving the ball a bit farther this year, 295.9 yards compared to 291.8 yards last year. He’s performing roughly the same in greens in regulation (102nd on tour) and driving accuracy (63rd on tour) this year as last.

From a strokes-gained standpoint, Spieth is 14th in strokes gained tee-to-green, 19th in strokes gained: putting and fifth in strokes gained total this season. Compare that to fourth, ninth and third respectively last year. So again, not terribly off with respect to these major indicators but still slightly worse.

And if you must nitpick based on the limited pool of data we have thus far, here are some significant areas where Spieth is performing worse in 2015-2016 than he did during his remarkable 2014-2015 campaign.

2015 vs. 2016 Statistical differences
Statistic2016 Rank2015 Rank
Rough proximity1341
Approaches 50-125 yards165111
Approaches 100-125 yards20360
Approaches 150-175 yards12934
Sand save %18724
Putting inside 10'16352
Putting 10-15'8482
Putting 20-25'1221

So we can see Spieth has struggled with approach-shot accuracy this season, his scrambling and sand play isn’t on par with his work last season and he’s struggled with his putting in close and from distance.

Is the world No. 1 slumping? No. Is he doomed heading into Augusta? No.

However, recent results indicate a struggle, and a look at a wading pool-size troth of data does reveal areas of concern.

But let's bottle that frenzy and put it on the shelf until Spieth is shooting in the high 70s and missing the cut at, say, Augusta National. 

And let's hope, as golf fans, that he isn't.

After years of "What's wrong with Tiger Woods?" chatter, we're not ready for the rise of another cottage industry of speculation and amateur analysis in golf.

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