Jordan Spieth, whose three-plus-year odyssey from the top of the sport to its peripheries was one of its great wonders and concerns, capped the comeback that has dominated golf in 2021 with a win at the Valero Texas Open.
“It has been a long time,” Spieth said. “It’s been since July of 2017. There’s peaks and valleys in this sport. I never expected to go this long. Back then, in between wins, I just kind of took a lot – maybe more for granted than I should have,” Spieth said. “It’s very difficult to win out here and I’ll certainly enjoy this one as much as I have any other.”
This was no surprise; the win had been coming into focus for weeks now. There were near-misses at TPC Scottsdale and Pebble Beach and Bay Hill, strong showings at Riviera and Austin Country Club. This victory seemed like a matter of if, not when. But though he was heading out of the darkness, the beauty of this game is the end is never predetermined. As Spieth’s past has proved, the present is no guarantee of the future.
A sentiment all too evident at the beginning of the final round. Sharing the 54-hole lead with Matt Wallace, Spieth looked very much like the guy who had laboured mightily on Sundays (146th in Round 4 scoring) by missing his first three fairways of the day. Yet his approach game kept him afloat as he settled down on the tee, with his putter – the tool that was once friend and now occasionally foe – cleaning up a handful of 10-footers for birdies. He made the turn in 33, and the Texas crowd was ready for the victory parade.
“Just to see those putts go in, I felt like I was doing everything right those other Sundays and I hit good putts and they wouldn’t go in,” Spieth said. “Today I hit a couple that I didn’t quite strike very well, but they went in. It’s a funny game. It shows that as long as you put yourself in that position enough times, the bounces do go your way.”
Except Charley Hoffman had no intentions of letting such a march happen. Hoffman, who’s made a living at this event (more on him in a second), also made the turn in 33, and a chip-in birdie at the 13th brought Spieth’s advantage down to two shots. After trading birdies at the par-5 14th, Hoffman cut the lead to one with another birdie, this one at the par-3 16th.
But Hoffman sprayed his drive into a bunker at the 17th, and though his approach was true, his birdie try was not. Spieth answered, his second from 70 metres finishing five feet from the hole. Five feet that was converted for birdie to move the lead back to two. With Spieth finding the fairway at the 18th, the tournament appeared to be a wrap.
Just kidding. This is Jordan Spieth we’re talking about. Anyone who thought he’d land this plane without skidding off the runway and deploying an emergency parachute hasn’t been paying attention, which is why his lay-up hooked far left and near a scoreboard. Somewhere, TV executives exchanged high-fives. But Spieth decided that was enough drama, his third safely finding the edge of the green. With Hoffman unable to apply pressure off another tee-shot miss, Spieth’s conservative lag completed the journey.
Where Spieth goes from here – starting this week at Augusta National, a course that has been his playground – is now the pre-eminent storyline in golf. And watching him at the Masters and going for the career Grand Slam next month at Kiawah Island and attempting to do the things that were on his former all-time trajectory will be fun. But today was a day to cherish the day, and all the days that came before it. A day some thought might never come.
“There’s also moments I look back on where I hit balls ’til my hands bled and I wasn’t doing the right thing and I just went home [and] thought about it; sleeping, lost sleep,” Spieth said. “This sport can take you a lot of different directions. So I think it’s just most important to embrace when I have moments like this and just really appreciate them and keep my head down, keep the process that I’m doing.”
That in itself is a miracle to celebrate.
Here are three other takeaways from the final round of the Valero Texas Open.
Hoffman keeps cashing cheques
Spieth won the day, but consider today’s performance an official petition to change the Texas Open to the Charley Hoffman Invitational. Or at least put a Hoffman ATM on the first tee.
In 14 career starts at the event Hoffman has never missed the cut while racking up more than $US3.7 million in the event. Though he failed to grab the trophy he’s adding to those figures with a $US839,300 payday for finishing in second thanks to a final-round 66. Not that Hoffman was overly ecstatic about it.
“Obviously you come to each event trying to win, but second place isn’t that bad,” Hoffman said. “Obviously I want to get back to the Masters, I want to get back to Kapalua. I play to win, not finish second. But obviously had a chance, gave my best and just fell slightly short.”
To be fair, while he somewhat stumbled on the final two holes, this was a tournament Spieth won, not one given away by Hoffman. “Jordan played some great, amazing golf,” Hoffman acknowledged. “Bogey-free on that back nine is something special.” And even though Hoffman is the epitome of a horses-for-courses at this tournament, this marked his third top-10 finish in his past six starts.
As he mentioned, Hoffman needed a win to earn the Augusta invite. But the 44-year-old, after a few lean years, is enjoying a late-career rejuvenation. There’s no doubt he’ll be a favourite once this tournament returns next year. Expect to hear his name again well before that.
Kuchar gets momentum into Masters
Two weeks ago it was fair to wonder where Matt Kuchar was heading. After finishing in 16th or better in nine of the past 11 FedEx Cups, Kuchar entered the WGC–Dell Match Play 183rd in the rankings thanks to missing the cut in five of 11 starts with his best finish a T-34. He was struggling in nearly every facet of the game – 181st in strokes gained/off-the-tee, 120th in approach, 124th in strokes gained/putting – and turning 43 this year, the question was raised if Kuchar was running out of petrol.
Two weeks later, the man enters the Masters with momentum riding shotgun. Kuchar proved his run in Austin (ultimately finishing with a T-3 at the Match Play) was no aberration, following up with four solid rounds at TPC San Antonio to log a T-12 at the Texas Open.
A bit of context is needed. Like the Match Play, Kuchar has a strong track record at the Texas Open. He also never truly contended and failed to break 70 all four rounds. Conversely, Kuchar was arguably the weakest player (by current form) in the world’s top 60; before the Match Play his last top 10 was at Riviera in 2020.
Now he rides into Augusta with his game trending and his conviction intact. Like the previous two tournaments, Kuchar has had success at the Masters with four top-10s and eight top-25s in 14 career starts. As we’ve seen at Augusta National, two of the key ingredients are experience and momentum. After a vague forecast just two weeks ago, the horizon looks bright – and possibly green – for Kuchar next week.
Fowler’s Major streak comes to a close
He gave it a run. But it is a run that came up short.
Rickie Fowler needed a win in San Antonio to make the Masters and keep his streak of 42 consecutive Major appearances alive. An opening-round 76 put the kibosh on those aspirations. The former Players champion battled to make the weekend and did thanks to a Friday 68, and followed that performance up with a 69 and 70 over the final two rounds. Still, for the first time since the 2010 US Open, Fowler will be watching one of the big four at home.
For Fowler fans seeking solace, this week was littered with signs of hope. Entering the Texas Open 178th in strokes gained/approach and 176th in strokes gained/putting, Fowler made strides in both categories (30th in approach, 39th in putting). Although bogey avoidance remains an issue (196th on tour), Fowler had a 14-to-5 birdie/bogey ratio across the final three rounds. And his T-17 is his first finish inside the top 20 this season.
A player of his skillset has higher ambitions. But when you’re engulfed in struggle like Fowler, every little step forward can feel like a leap. For the first time in what feels like forever, Fowler is heading in the right direction, even if that direction isn’t Georgia.