At the end of the 2015 calendar year, Jordan Spieth stood atop the golfing world. Catapulted by 10 top-two finishes in 27 worldwide starts, Spieth ranked No. 1 in the Official World Golf Rankings. He’d won the Masters, the U.S. Open, registered near victories at the Open Championship and at the PGA Championship, and won the TOUR Championship in the Adult Gross Division.
He finished at the top of another leaderboard too: Spieth led the PGA Tour in Make Percentage on putts from 20-25 feet for the 2014-15 season at 26%, making more than double the Tour average for the season (12.5%). He wasn’t too shabby from 15-20 feet either, holing 28% of his putts from that range, which ranked 2nd on Tour.
Jordan was draining 15-25 foot putts at a rate more than 10% above the PGA Tour average. Absurd. Unfortunately, when it comes to golf statistics, “absurd” tends to be synonymous with “unsustainable.” As a general rule of thumb, superb ball striking is more predictive of future success than elite putting.
Well, from a ball-striking perspective, Spieth’s skill set early in his career appeared to be built for long-term success. Slightly above average in both driving distance and in driving accuracy, Jordan consistently gained strokes off the tee throughout his first few years on Tour. Complemented with elite iron play throughout the bag and short game wizardry, Spieth routinely shredded fields tee to green for much of 2015-2018. Between the 2015 and 2018 seasons, Spieth finished in the Top 25 in Strokes Gained: Tee to Green all four seasons, including two seasons in the top five.
Then things went a bit off the rails.
Throughout 2019 and 2020, Spieth struggled mightily with his full swing. He fell to being ranked 92nd in the world. His driving accuracy plummeted towards the bottom of the PGA Tour. He lost more than a quarter of a stroke per round off the tee in each of the 2019 and 2020 seasons, often missing fairways by such a wide distance that even crafty Spieth could not recover from such penal locations:
A rare bright spot during this period, the 2019 PGA Championship at Bethpage Black yielded Spieth’s only top five of the 2019 PGA Tour season. He finished tied for third. During that tournament, he’d gained more than ten strokes with his putter. He had the worst tee-to-green performance of any player who finished in the top 10. Spieth’s performance at Bethpage was a microcosm of the state of his game. His brilliance with the putter bailed him out of a lackluster ball-striking performance. Brilliance with the putter is fleeting; steady ball striking is reliable.
Since that tournament, the tides have turned in Jordan’s favor.
Following a moderately successful 2021 year, Spieth has been strong in 2022. Back in February, he nearly won the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. In his most recent two starts, Jordan has a win at Harbour Town and a runner-up at the Byron Nelson. He’s gaining 1.28 strokes per round tee to green, which ranks 12th on Tour this season. Instead of relying upon hot putting, Spieth is thriving despite his putter, which has been inconsistent so far this season.
What is responsible for Jordan’s return to ball-striking form?
Clearly, he’s worked out some kinks in his swing, which has translated to better ball striking. But more notably, Jordan Spieth has become a long driver of the golf ball.
On all measured drives, Spieth is averaging 302.2 yards per drive, ranking 11th on Tour. In 2015, Spieth ranked T43 on Tour in the stat, averaging 286 yards per drive. He’s never finished in the top 25 in this statistic for a full season.
Now compare his distance to another top player who has been a long driver of the golf ball historically, Brooks Koepka. In 2015, Spieth outdrove Koepka just 26% of the time on holes longer than 450 yards. So far in 2022, Spieth has outdriven Koepka on 35% of 450-plus yard holes. Koepka still hits the ball farther, but Spieth has closed the distance.
Marginal distance is significant on Tour. A small increase in distance can be the difference between an approach shot finding a green side bunker versus finding the fringe or finding the fringe versus hitting the green:
In addition to newfound length, Spieth is also driving the ball relatively straight. He ranks 115th out of 200 qualified players in my database by true driving accuracy in 2022. Middle of the pack accuracy with respectable length is a solid combination. Factoring both distance and accuracy, Spieth’s driving profile pretty neatly matches a player like Joaquin Niemann or a slightly shorter-hitting version of Sam Burns. Those guys can drive the ball!
For the first time in his career, Jordan Spieth has added a tool to his bag that shows up every week: distance. Some days, 25-foot putts drop. Some days, 25-foot putts lip out. Every day, driving distance provides a reliable advantage.
This week, Spieth heads to the PGA Championship at Southern Hills in the hopes of completing the career grand slam. His shot-making ability and short-game prowess will be useful as he navigates the slopes and tightly-mown areas of Southern Hills. But pay attention to his firepower off the tee. With his driver as a legitimate weapon, Spieth will encounter a long golf course upon which he will not sacrifice much distance to the longest-hitting players in the field.
𝗧𝗵𝗮𝘁 close to hitting the green.
Jordan Spieth will have to hole the pitch to force a playoff. pic.twitter.com/zeLHwSN8eI
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) May 15, 2022
I’m expecting a strong week from Jordan at Southern Hills as he continues his ascent back towards World No. 1.
MORE PGA COVERAGE FROM THE FRIED EGG
- A video with Gil Hanse on what the pros will confront at Southern Hills
- The Restoration: Southern Hills and the future of championship golf
- A PGA Primer on the traits and challenges of Southern Hills
- Paulie’s Picks: Attributes and players to consider for the PGA
- What to Know About Perry Maxwell: The life, work, and philosophy of the architect behind Southern Hills
- Oklahoma and Maxwell-themed T-shirts for the 2022 PGA