AUSTIN, Texas — As much golf as Jordan Spieth likes to play, it took as much discipline as he could muster to not play at all.
When he left the Masters on Nov. 15, the only two rounds of golf he played were of the recreational variety. One was a trip with friends to Whispering Pines in southeast Texas, which was more about having a few beers and swinging the club. The other was his annual December trip to Augusta National with sponsors from AT&T.
“I didn’t play a serious round from Sunday of Augusta until the Wednesday before I left for San Diego,” Spieth said, a span of 65 days before he started out his 2021 campaign at Torrey Pines.
He missed the cut and fell to No. 92 in the world, his lowest position since he headed to the John Deere Classic at age 19 and won for the first time on the PGA Tour.
In that respect, Spieth is happy to be at his second home — he spent three semesters at the University of Texas — for the Dell Technologies Match Play. All any of the 64 players at Austin Country Club need is a tee time, and then there’s no telling how the most fickle week in golf will pan out.
The plan endorsed by swing coach Cameron McCormick was to stay away from the golf Spieth loves to play and stick to work on the range as he tried to rediscover the blueprint that made him so successful in the first place. Even recreational golf is reactionary, and there was no point in falling into bad habits until they were broken.
McCormick believes 80% of PGA Tour members love to play and 20% — Vijay Singh comes to mind — prefer to spend long hours on the range. Spieth was part of the majority.
“But when you’re trying to revisit and re-engineer a former self, there’s some constructive work that needs to go on,” McCormick said. “That constructive work required him to turn himself into a ‘practicer’ for a period of time and exercise some self-discipline that, ‘I need to stay away from the golf course.’ He was in golf course quarantine.
“It probably felt to him like a year.”
Missing the cut led to a weekend of very constructive work, and Spieth quickly turned the corner. He had a share of the 54-hole lead in Phoenix and a two-shot lead going into the last day at Pebble Beach. He has played consistently better every step of the way and made the Match Play field with room to spare.
He is the No. 49 seed this week, meaning he came out of the “D” group of golfers. That means he faces one of the top 16 seeds — Matt Fitzpatrick, in his case — when this unique World Golf Championship begins Wednesday.
Spieth wasn’t in the last WGC a month ago at Concession — he had never been ineligible for one since he became a full PGA Tour member — and that also motivated him.
“That hit me pretty hard,” he said. “Missing a World Golf Championship via not qualifying for it was the first one, and I didn’t like that at all. … I’m glad to be here with a chance.”
The format is 16 four-man groups playing each other over three days, with the winner of each group advancing to the knockout stage on the weekend.
Kevin Kisner is the defending champion from 2019 — the Match Play was the third event canceled last year after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down golf for three months. Kisner was the No. 48 seed, and he became the first player to lose his opening match and go on to win since this group format began in 2015.
Kisner won’t have it any easier this week. His group includes Justin Thomas, Louis Oosthuizen and Matt Kuchar. Two are past champions (Kisner and Kuchar). Oosthuizen was a finalist in 2016, while Thomas reached the semifinals in 2018.
“I would have way more fun if all three of them just forfeited the match, to be honest,” Kisner said. “But no, it’s fun. If you want to be the best, you got to beat the best. And JT is playing arguably the best in the world right now.”
Thomas, the No. 2 seed, is coming off a victory in The Players Championship. Dustin Johnson is the No. 1 seed for the fourth straight time in the Match Play, though it has only led to victory once.
How fickle is this event? Jon Rahm lost in the title match to Johnson in 2017, and the next year Rahm didn’t win a match.
“The one thing — the true thing — is to get to the final, you need to play good,” Rahm said. “And at some point, you’re going to have to get lucky.”
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