Even for Jordan Spieth, Putting Is a Fickle Skill

Southampton, N.Y.

One of the most shocking moments of the golf season so far came on an otherwise forgettable Friday in May. At a tournament on his home course in Dallas, Jordan Spieth lined up the kind of putt that most amateurs pick up as a gimme: 15 inches to the hole, an easy tap-in. The ball lipped out. The crowd gasped. “You’ve got to be joking,” a broadcaster said.

Spieth, the 24-year-old three-time major champion, is historically one of the best putters in the world. He is also, statistically speaking, the 190th best putter on the PGA Tour this season, or the 16th worst. That says something about where Spieth’s game has been ahead of this week’s U.S. Open, where he will look to win for the first time since his stirring comeback to win last year’s British Open. But it is also indicative of the nature of the part of golf that made him famous.

In a sport so erratic that its participants can become totally unhinged, no skill is more volatile than putting. To a degree that is unmatched in areas such as driving or iron play, a player can go from one of the best in the world to one of the worst and back again. It can happen from year to year, week to week and even round to round.

“There’s so many variables,” said Rory McIlroy, a notoriously streaky putter. “There’s slopes, there’s different green speeds, there’s different grasses. I mean, you could get a robot on the green and they could hit the exact same putt at the exact same speed and one ball could go in and one ball won’t.”

In strokes gained putting, which quantifies the value of each putt by how many expected strokes a player gains or loses with it relative to the field, McIlroy has finished recent seasons ranked as high as 41st and as low as 140th.

The standard deviation on that statistic from round to round for all players in 2017 was 1.6 strokes, according to Mark Broadie, the Columbia University business professor who created the metric. That was more than the deviations for driving, approaches and short game.

When a skill proves to be that fickle, it leaves players to wonder when they’re putting poorly and when they’re simply not making putts. The two are not always the same.

“I don’t feel like I’ve been putting bad,” world No. 1 Dustin Johnson said last month. “I just haven’t been making anything. And I’m not pulling or pushing them, I’m hitting good putts, they’re just not going in the hole.”

Spieth’s rocky run on the greens has been especially jarring because of how prolific he has been. He was only 22 in 2015 when the English golfer Ian Poulter said he “may be the best putter ever.” One of the signature moments of his British Open victory was a 50-yard eagle putt on the 15th green in the final round. Rather than remove the ball from the hole himself, he famously shouted at his caddie, Michael Greller, “Go get that!”

It was the sort of long, low-percentage putt that has made Spieth an outlier among his peers. In 2015 and 2016, he made a little over 12% of putts from 20 feet and longer, more than anyone else on the PGA Tour. On shorter putts, he was good but not exceptional.

This year, though, he has slipped most on the putts that appear to be the easiest to make. From inside 5 feet, Spieth ranks just 180th on Tour, missing nearly 5% of the time from that range.

“They look shorter on TV than they actually are,” Spieth said. “There’s actually a lot of luck involved, depending on when you’re playing and if the wind is blowing. You can hit a just-outside-right-edge 5-footer and depending on if it’s a cross wind, it can be a dead straight putt and miss left of the hole.”

The maddening inconsistency of putting has in recent years spurred the growth of a relatively new kind of specialist role: putting coach. Some players now employ coaches who work with them solely on the greens, in addition to their regular swing coaches.

One of them is Phil Kenyon, who has worked with a few dozen pros. He said the component parts of putting—starting the ball on a straight line, speed control and reading the slope of the green—are easy enough to understand. But distilling which of the three is causing players to miss putts can be vexing.

“It can be difficult to see where it broke down and what they need to concentrate on,” Kenyon said, “whereas if they’re high and left on the first tee, they can easily get feedback from that and relate that back to aspects of their technique. It’s hard to understand where you are at any point in time.”

Spieth attributed his recent issues to what he does before he begins his stroke. After struggling with his alignment—getting his body and clubface in line with the intended line of his putts—he said he has felt more comfortable of late.

The upside of relying on a highly volatile skill is that it can come back to a dramatic extent with seemingly little notice.

“Jordan is a great putter who will have occasional moments of poor putting,” Phil Mickelson said. “He’s just one of those guys that it will click overnight. He’s just too good of a putter not to get it back.”

Write to Brian Costa at brian.costa@wsj.com

Appeared in the June 14, 2018, print edition as ‘Putting Is a Fickle Skill.’

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