Dustin Johnson setting standard but Jordan Spieth, Justin Rose and Brooks Koepka returning to form
Last updated on .From the section Golf
Dustin Johnson relentlessly produces performances to make him a commanding world number one while trailing rivals, such as Jordan Spieth, are demonstrating the guts and determination that previously helped them scale golf's summit.
Spieth cheered his legion of fans with an inspired display that produced his best PGA Tour result for 20 months last week. The three-times major champion finished joint fourth behind another former number one, Brooks Koepka, in Phoenix.
Koepka's triumph was a familiar story of resilience, as was Justin Rose's runner-up finish behind Johnson in Saudi Arabia.
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Extraordinarily Spieth is still only 27 years old but, given what the current world number 69 has been through, he must feel a lot older in golfing years.
Consider that between April 2015 and June 2016, there was only one week he was ranked outside the top two places in the world.
In that time he won the Masters and US Open and was within a shot of the play-off that decided the 2015 Open at St Andrews. At that point he was chasing history, a calendar year grand slam of major titles. Two years later he claimed the Claret Jug with a brilliant victory at Royal Birkdale.
And then he stopped winning.
Spieth's game unravelled to the point that he was ignored by captain Tiger Woods for the American Presidents Cup team in 2019, a previously unthinkable scenario.
This likeable US star was the second best player tee to green in the PGA Tour's 2017 statistics. Within two years he had tumbled out of the top 150 and last year he ranked 90th in this key area of the game.
Spieth began his 2021 campaign at Torrey Pines last week. A second-round 75 meant he missed the cut by a single shot and his world ranking tumbled to 92.
He wants to rediscover the feels and techniques that once made him the best in the world. At last October's CJ Cup Spieth asked legendary coach Butch Harmon to add his wisdom to that of long-time teacher Cameron McCormick.
"I agreed with most of the stuff they were working on," Harmon later told Sirius XM PGA Tour Radio. "I thought I was going to have to change his clubface at the top of the swing.
"You know how open that gets because he has a very weak left-hand grip, but they had worked beautifully on that. I didn't think he was turning enough. If you don't wind stuff up, you can't unwind it."
In Phoenix last week, Spieth opened with consecutive rounds of 67 before recording a career-low 61 in the third round. It was vintage stuff, putts dropped from all distances and that familiar bounce and verve was again discernible.
"I didn't try and make any significant changes," Spieth said, "just try to get back to what I did best that I didn't realise I did at the time."
He knows well that one round does not make a tournament and that one tournament does not make a season, but this was a big step, one that seemed to put a jolt of electricity through the game.
"It's pretty cool to be able to shoot 10 under saying it's a work in progress," Spieth said. "I'll take that as confidence knowing that it's going to get better going forward."
For the last round he was in the final group with Xander Schauffele, just as they had been for the 2018 Open at Carnoustie. Then, Spieth was defending a major title, now it seems a lifetime ago.
Spieth ultimately settled for a share of fourth place. It was, none the less, his best event for a very long time.
And there was no shame in finishing behind Koepka, who had fallen from the top of the tree to 13th in the world largely due to recurring problems with his left knee. They had seriously undermined a swing that brought four majors between 2017-19.
After such a torrid time, this ruthless victory emphatically showed the 30-year-old has returned as a genuine force. "There was a period, maybe for about two months, where I just questioned whether I was ever going to be the same," Koepka said.
"It just felt like it wasn't progressing. And that's the frustrating part, when you feel like it's not going anywhere.
"But we stuck with it. Those dark places, a lot of tears, questioning yourself, and in dark places mentally," he added. "It takes a lot of effort just do get out of those places."
Exactly two years ago Rose was officially the best player in the world but since then there has been steady deterioration and last week he was only just inside the top 40.
He had recorded only two top 10s since professional golf returned after lockdown in June last year as Rose went through massive personal and professional changes.
He relocated his family to Britain, became more detached from coach Sean Foley and changed his playing equipment.
But the underlying determination to succeed has not altered for the 40-year-old and by last Sunday in Saudi Arabia the Olympic champion looked much more his old self.
Rose carded a superb 65 in tricky conditions and on awkward greens to finish in a share of second place. Taking into account strength of field, it was his best result since finishing third at the 2019 US Open.
Afterwards the Englishman spoke of steady improvement and "growing his game" during three weeks on the European Tour in the Middle East. "I got close enough this week to feel like that win might be coming," he said.
But, like Spieth and Koepka, there must be huge awareness of just how dominant the current world number one is proving. Johnson could not fathom those tricky Saudi greens, yet powered to another very convincing victory.
In his last 10 starts he has now won three times, including November's Masters. He was joint second at the US PGA, one of three runners-up spots in this mesmerising spell in which he has always finished in the leading dozen.
It is utterly relentless.
"I like to play well every week," Johnson explained. "I approach every tournament the same.
"I don't try to get my game just ready for the majors. I want to be ready each and every week I play," says a man who clearly knows that such form is extremely precious.
And Johnson does not have to look far to see how it can evaporate for any number of reasons. Spieth, Koepka and Rose provide ample evidence of that as well as how hard, and potentially rewarding, it can be to turn the tide.
It reminds me of the Mrs Merton question - "What was it the first attracted you to....".
The biggest difference from missing the cut at Torrey Pines last week? There is simply very little penalty for wild tee shots at TPC Scottsdale.
However two things were like the old Spieth - large slices of good luck and one streaky day with the putter.
Well played BK
Nice to see Rose playing well.
Will Finau ever win again!?
Shouty spectators - still annoying
P Reed, after winning on the extremely tough PGA tour the previous week, pops over to the easier ET and finishes T66. At least he made the cut unlike world number 3 Justin Thomas 2 weeks ago.
It was good to see Koepka looking back to something like his best and it will be interesting to see how Spieth's season develops from here.
That'll soon correct any delusions. No mercy