How many times can a player be “back” then immediately “not back”? Jordan Spieth is currently setting the record for this made-up stat, not that we’re keeping track.
Each time the three-time major winner tees it up, we see the flashes. The birdie spurts. The heroic par putts. The second-round 65 that precedes a weekend disappearance. Each time we all get sucked in before promptly getting spit back out.
It happened again on Thursday. In his home state of Texas, Spieth had a share of the lead early at the Vivint Houston Open. He went out in two-under 33 on the front nine at Memorial Park, making the turn without a bogey. He then birdied the 10th to get to three under. Never mind that he was driving it OK, striking it not-so-great and putting pretty poorly. He was tied for the lead more than halfway through his round! He was BACK.
That’s when Tom Doak’s epic risk-reward back nine came up and smacked both Spieth and all of us across the face. Spieth came home in 40, bogeying the 11th, 13th and 14th holes, then making double bogey at the treacherous par-3 15th—which gave more than a few players fits today. A second double bogey came on the par-4 18th. And just like that, he had gone from tied for the lead to outside the top 70. At this point, he’s like the Cleveland Browns. Even when it’s going good, deep down you know it’s not going to end well.
What makes this latest “he’s back”/”wait, no, he’s not back” routine so disheartening is that it’s happening just seven days before the 2020 Masters. If anyone can show up and play well at Augusta National, it’s Spieth. He’s played magically around that revered course for his entire career. To not give himself a little positive energy before heading to Georgia makes it that much more difficult to watch.
Here are three other takeaways from Thursday’s first round at Memorial Park.
The fan experiment went well (so far)
This isn’t the first PGA Tour event to allow fans (that was last week in Bermuda), but it is the first to allow a somewhat significant amount. At Port Royal, attendance was capped at 500 each day. This week, they’re allowing 2,000 as the number of COVID cases continues to rise in Texas and around the country. But, as our Brian Wacker noted on Wednesday pointed out, there are protocols in place (masks required for entry among them), and there is plenty of room to space out on the property.
The experiment appeared to go well (so far), and it was certainly nice to hear the claps and cheers on the broadcast again. The players sounded like they enjoyed hearing them.
“The energy was definitely a lot different than us just being out here by ourselves,” said Scottie Scheffler, who shot a three-under 67. “It’s fun, especially for a Thursday, and with there only being a couple thousand fans, it’s just definitely good to see people out here again.”
Scheffler was one of the first high-profile players to be diagnosed with COVID-19, but has since made a full recovery and is trying to get his golf game back to his pre-COVID form. He believes the tour is doing a fine job handling the virus.
“I’m extremely comfortable,” Scheffler said. “I think the tour’s done a great job keeping us safe and keeping the fans safe. I think it’s great that they have the freedom to come out here and watch. Pretty much everyone was wearing a mask that I saw, so I felt very safe out there on the course.”
Tony Finau, who is making his second start since testing positive for COVID, was happy to hear some claps, too.
“Right out of the gate, when they said my name on the first tee, it was cool to have some people kind of cheer,” said Finau, who shot a one-under 69. “It’s been a while since I’ve heard that. It feels nice to have some of our fans back and just look forward to having all of them back in bunches.”
A surprising (but well-known) name is alone at the top
In 2019, Brandt Snedeker made more than $3.1 million without a victory, amassing six top-six finishes, including two in the FedEx Cup Playoffs. A season earlier, he made just shy of $2.5 million with a victory at the Wyndham Championship, which included a first-round 59 that put him in the record books forever.
But the 2020 bug that has bit the entire nation bit Snedeker as well, as the nine-time tour winner failed to eclipse $1 million in earnings and posted just one top 10. For a wildly consistent player, it was an out-of-character season. This fall, however, Sneds has begun to find his 2018-’19 self, having tied for 17th at Sanderson Farms, then going 67-68-63 at the Shriners before stumbling to a 74 on Sunday. On Thursday in Houston, he shot the low round of the day, a five-under 65 that has given him a two-shot lead. He knew he was playing well, but not even he could have predicted that number was out there on what was a difficult scoring day.
“No, I didn’t,” said Snedeker when asked if he thought 65 was possible on Thursday. “I knew I was putting good, which was a good feeling going into the day. I knew I’ve been driving it well, so it just kind of depended how I hit my irons and kind of hung in there. Did a great job of kind of thinking my way around the golf course. And you know, it’s going to be a long week, this golf course is a big, tough golf course and so I’m excited I got a low one in me, which is good. The lead means nothing right now, we have a lot of golf to go.”
A confident, but not cocky, man. Not getting too far ahead of himself. Has played decent at Augusta National in the past. Is currently 150-1 to win the green jacket next week on the DraftKings Sportsbook. I’m just saying.
A quiet day for Dustin (and Brooks)
The bash bros (are we still calling them that?) got off to not-so-hot starts on Thursday, each shooting two-over 72s, which puts them seven back. They both have legitimate excuses. Johnson just had COVID, and Koepka is still trying to get back into game shape after a long break from injury. We’re not going to read too much further into it. Next week is the Super Bowl. This week might as well be a preseason game for these two.