OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. – A season spanning 11 months and 21 events and roughly 4,700 strokes was coming down to this.
The FedExCup has undergone several iterations and been the subject of countless marketing campaigns, but it shouldn’t be that complicated. The Tour postseason underscores that every shot matters.
For the better part of 16 years, that’s been the defining characteristic of these playoffs, and Jordan Spieth was painfully aware of it Sunday, as he strained to stay inside the top 30 cutoff at the BMW Championship.
That’s why he was walking so quickly down the fairways at Olympia Fields, in full grind mode.
That’s why he was pumping his fist while still a dozen shots off the lead.
That’s why he was dismayed by a bad lie, apoplectic about a missed putt, salty after an untimely bogey. He knew, deep down, his season was on the brink.
The first two legs of the FedExCup playoffs are made-for-TV events. Coverage can bounce around, to various putts of consequence, telling a slightly delayed story of how the round’s birdies and bogeys create volatility in the season-long points standings. On the ground, of course, that’s not the reality. Entering the week at No. 27, Spieth might have sensed what he needed to advance – he had to finish in the top half of the 50-man field, to be safe – but it’s also a moving target, dependent not just on his own play but those around him.
Tyrrell Hatton and Emiliano Grillo.
Sepp Straka and Sahith Theegala.
Denny McCarthy and Justin Rose.
Keeping track of all of it, in real time, was impossible. Updates would occasionally flash onto the giant leaderboards, but they aren’t set up on every hole. All Spieth could do was put up the best score possible and hope it was enough.
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) August 20, 2023
There were plenty of low rounds Sunday – none better than Viktor Hovland’s closing 61 that stole him the BMW title – but Spieth didn’t post one of them. He’d managed just two birdies and a bogey on the opening nine, unable to create any breathing room. He had just a wedge into the 10th hole, a green-light special, when the wind flipped and sent his ball screaming over the green. He walked off with double bogey, and for the next two hours it was an almighty struggle to the clubhouse.
After a nifty birdie on the par-5 15th hole, Spieth likely figured he needed at least one more birdie to make the rest of his afternoon less stressful. Wailing away on the long 17th, he thought he hit a perfect drive down the left side, only to discover that a wind gust had shoved his ball just barely into the rough. When he arrived at his ball buried deep in the Kentucky bluegrass, he groaned with disgust.
Had the ball finished a foot right of that mark, he was sitting perfectly in the first cut, ready to attack. A few feet left, he’d have little issue in the light rough.
“God! Really?!” he cried.
The lie was horrid.
“Why are you doing this s–t to me?” he groaned, to no in particular.
With no chance to go flag-hunting into the elevated green, his ball drifted meekly into the right greenside bunker. After splashing out to 7 feet, Spieth felt the weight of the moment. He took his time, looking at the read from every angle. He called in caddie Michael Greller for help.
Left-center, he thought. But his ball dove left at the cup.
“Ah!” he shrieked. “No way!”
He ripped off his hat. Wandered around the side of the green. After playing partner Keegan Bradley cleaned up his par, Spieth returned to the green to look at the line again. He shouted an expletive into his towel.
Just while standing there, Spieth dropped in the standings from 29th to 30th to … well, it wasn’t immediately certain. The board didn’t update by the time he bolted for the 18th tee.
The drama continued to build. His drive found the rough. Then his approach didn’t chase up onto the green. Then his birdie pitch didn’t drop. Finally, 6 feet away for par, it became clear: He was 30th.
“This is a pressure-packed putt,” the on-course reporter whispered into his mic, and Spieth’s attempt caught the right edge and stayed out, his bogey-bogey finish dooming him to a Sunday 71 – the second-worst score of any player inside the top 35.
Spieth shook hands with Greller. Removed his hat. Stared at the giant screen.
At the time, he was tied for 35th in the event – not in the top half of the field, like he needed – and he kept staring at the screen, bent over, hands on his knees, like a gymnast awaiting scores from the judges.
The board was about to flip to the third page of the leaderboard.
Spieth leaned in.
There it was.
He was … 30th.
By two points.
Spieth made the long walk toward scoring to replay his day, his week, his season – all that could have been. Three more hours of golf remained.
That Spieth was even in this precarious position, on the cusp of postseason elimination, was somewhat of a surprise. He’d played well, in spurts, this season. He had seven top-10s. That included a playoff loss at one of the Tour’s signature events, the RBC Heritage. That included a tie for fourth at the Masters. That included a tie for sixth at the first playoff event, last week in Memphis.
But Spieth also didn’t win, and that’s been a common theme these past few years since he emerged from a slump that threatened to derail his Hall of Fame career. After 11 wins in his first five seasons on Tour, he’s managed only two in the last six years: He ended a four-year winless drought the week before the 2021 Masters, against a weak field in San Antonio; and last year, he prevailed in a playoff at Harbour Town following a wild final round during which all of the other contenders tripped over themselves before the finish line.
Though Spieth remains immensely popular, his productivity and stats have tailed off. Measured against his former self, in his best years of 2015 and ’17, there’s no comparison. He was an elite driver of the ball in 2015; now he’s 39th. He was an elite iron player in 2017; now he’s 35th. Though he’s still magic around the greens, he’s nowhere near as hot of a putter as during his peak; now he’s 71st.
This season was his best statistical campaign since 2017, and yet he still didn’t have many realistic chances to win. He still was in danger of missing the Tour finale for the fourth time in the past six seasons. He still doesn’t sniff the Tour’s top statistical leaders; Scottie Scheffler, on average, has gained 2 ½ strokes more per round than Spieth this season, while Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm, Patrick Cantlay are all two-plus or better.
Of course, that was of little concern at the moment. That’s a daunting, big-picture deficit to erase. Right now, as he walked toward scoring, he was more worried about the FedExCup bubble, about just making it to the season-ender.
Spieth declined a media request through the Tour communications staff, but the Tour’s social-media team captured a locker-room exchange where he pressed a Tour official on specific projections. It did little to satisfy him. Even after a cooldown period, he still wasn’t ready to discuss his play. He avoided a small group of reporters and ducked into a white BMW, headed out of town, with no shortage of shots to rue and a scoring site to refresh.
Three hours later, his position was made official: He was safely into the field at East Lake, by the narrowest of margins, with just 12 points to spare.