SAN FRANCISCO – The spotlight on Jordan Spieth should be bright enough to cut through the marine layer blanketing Harding Park this week at the PGA Championship.
Win this major and he joins the most exclusive club in golf with the final leg of the career Grand Slam. Only five other players — Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen — have won all four majors since the Masters began in 1934.
This is his fourth chance, and each year becomes more difficult. The longest anyone went from winning the third leg to completing the Grand Slam was three years by Player and Nicklaus.
And hardly anyone is talking about it.
It's not because Brooks Koepka is trying to become the first player to win the PGA Championship three straight times in stroke play, or because Tiger Woods is going for his record-tying fifth PGA. It's not even because golf has returned amid a coronavirus pandemic that has kept spectators away from a major championship for the first time.
Spieth has become an afterthought because he hasn't won since he captured the British Open three years ago.
Who would have guessed that? Certainly not the 27-year-old Texan.
“If you told me that, I'd probably say that guy is kind of a jerk and I'd walk the other way,” Spieth said with a smile. “But here we are. And I hope to end that as soon as possible.”
So much has changed since his last visit to the TPC Harding Park. That was in 2015 for the Cadillac Match Play. Spieth was the newly minted “Golden Child” in golf as the Masters champion. He would win the U.S. Open the following month, miss a British Open playoff by one shot at St. Andrews and be runner-up at the PGA Championship.
No one ever made such a spirited bid for the calendar Grand Slam.
Now, the world ranking tells the story. Spieth was No. 2 after winning at Royal Birkdale and getting his first shot at the career Grand Slam in the 2017 PGA Championship (he tied for 28th). He was No. 8 in the world going to Bellerive for the PGA Championship the following year (he tied for 12th).
He was No. 39 going to Bethpage Black last year. He played in the final group with Brooks Koepka on Saturday, albeit eight shots behind, and fell back quickly. He tied for third.
Now he has plunged all the way to No. 62, out of the top 50 for the first time since he was a 20-year-old rookie.
More troublesome than not winning is that Spieth has rarely contended. He has not finished within three shots of the lead since his remarkable rally in the final round of the Masters two years ago left him two shots behind Patrick Reed.
Is there hope? He has no doubt. Is there a chance at Harding Park? He has experience.
“Majors aren’t necessarily totally about form,” Spieth said. “They’re about experience and being able to grind it out, picking apart golf courses. So I feel like I probably have more confidence going into a major no matter where my game is at than any other golf tournament.”
Exactly what went wrong is a topic of debate and discussion. He was ill all of December before going into the 2018 season. His alignment got off. His putting, the hallmark of his game, went sideways. And he's been trying to put back the pieces ever since. The last two years he hasn't made it to the Tour Championship.
His only real success of late has been a more positive attitude. Spieth used the word “grace” at Colonial, his way of saying he will learn to shrug off mistakes and keep going.
“I almost feel at times like the game is testing me a little bit right now,” he said.
Last week, he spoke of a shot that hit a tree. Whereas it used to bounce in the fairway, this one went off a cart path and out-of-bounds. The same thing happened at Hilton Head.
“I feel like you can look at it a couple ways,” Spieth said. “You can get really upset and complain about it — which I’ve done and that’s not helpful — or you can look at it like, ‘Hey, this is part of the game testing you, and the better you handle these situations, the faster you progress forward.’”
Spieth says he is in no hurry. At 27, he has plenty of golf ahead of him in his career. As brilliant as his 2015 season was, he'd like to think his best years are ahead of him.
But there's only one PGA Championship this year. One shot at the career Grand Slam.
“It's something that I really want,” Spieth said. “It's probably the No. 1 goal in the game of golf for me right now is to try and capture that. I’d love to be able to hold all four trophies.”
The way the last three years have gone, any trophy would do.