Other Sports: Jordan Spieth is close to regaining his major-winning form, and close enough may be good enough at Masters

AUGUSTA, Ga. — The 38th-ranked golfer on the PGA Tour money list feels like he’s close. The fact that he hasn’t won this year the way Bubba Watson has, Rory McIlroy has, Phil Mickelson has, Dustin Johnson has and Jason Day has might be the only reason Jordan Spieth doesn’t enter the 82nd Masters Tournament as the odds-on favorite.

“I will never underestimate him,” Mickelson said, looking serious and sounding almost somber as he spoke. “He has so much game, plus he’s had so much success here at an early age, I would never underestimate his chances.”

Spieth tied Tiger Woods’ course record of 18-under-par 270 at the ripe old age of 21 (same as Woods when he posted that magic number in 1997) and sandwiched that victory with a pair of second-place finishes here. One included the Amen Corner two-in-the-water meltdown that probably kept him from securing a second green jacket, but Spieth’s recovery just to finish second after that 12th-hole disaster in 2016 is worth noting.

Defending champions don’t have a solid history at this course. Spieth is the only defending champ to even finish top-10 since that Woods fellow came in third in 2006 after capturing his fourth green jacket the previous year.

Now Tiger is pursuing a fifth and people feel like there’s a chance it could happen, and even Spieth noted that the Tiger comeback storyline could dwarf all others when things get started here Thursday morning. “I think Tiger being healthy and playing well was probably going to make it as anticipated as any going back five, six, seven years,” Spieth said.

Going back to last week, Spieth finished third in Houston. He feels like that tournament, coming after he collected a pair of wins in Austin in the match-play event, has helped him reel in a game that had him close to pushing the panic button earlier this year.

Spieth is not accustomed to ranking 38th on the money list or 36th in FedEx points. “I don’t shoot 5 over very often,” he said Thursday at his Masters news conference, referencing his first-round score at the Valspar Championship in Palm Harbor, Fla., last month. “For me it was a few tournaments in a row where I set my putter down and look up, they’re not looking at the same place. Sometimes I get that for a day, sometimes it’s a couple weeks, and I was getting it for a couple months.”

Exhaustive film study and practice along with the results achieved in Houston last week have convinced Spieth that he’s close with the magical stroke that has made him a three-time major winner and, at times, the No. 1 golfer on the planet.

“I’m not here to say it’s there because it’s not there yet,” Spieth said. “But it doesn’t mean that it can’t get there. I’m closer.”

His competitors have little doubt he will find that stroke soon and quite possibly this week.

“The thing about Jordan is he’s always going to rise to the occasion,” said Justin Thomas, a longtime Spieth competitor through juniors and currently the world’s No. 2 golfer behind Johnson. “I’ve been on the wrong side of it a couple of times where he’s beaten me on very, very big stages.

“All of us love this tournament, but he really loves this tournament. His short game is so good, that’s why he’s such a good golfer in the first place. But around here if he’s always leaving it in the right spots, he’s going to get up and down most of the time.”

And up-and-down season for Spieth could get going in an entirely new direction with a strong 72 holes here. There are hotter golfers who seem to be more popular picks this week, but Spieth’s absolute worst Masters in four tries as a pro was the 11th-place finish last year. And that came with a pair of 75s.

It’s that remarkable run of finishing 2-1-2 here between the ages of 20 and 22 that has Spieth feeling like the experienced pro who knows all the secrets of this special major championship.

“This tournament brings out the feel side of me, which is the better side of on the golf course,” Spieth said. “You have a lot of uneven lies and sloping greens, so you have to play a lot off of feel and what that lie gives you. That’s helped me settle in and not overthink things here and get into a nice groove. So it is my favorite tournament in the world.”

A lot of us feel that way. But only two golfers in history know what 18 under par was like at the end. If the other one has more eyes on him this week, Spieth won’t mind that at all … as long as the attention finds him Sunday afternoon.

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