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Bohls: Jordan Spieth returns to WGC-Dell Match Play, relaxed and recharged

Jordan Spieth, shown walking to the 12th tee during the first round of The Players Championship earlier this month, comes back to the WGC-Dell Match Play tournament with a surge of confidence after a strong start to the PGA Tour season.
  • Jordan Spieth comes to WGC-Dell Match Play with a surge of confidence after three Top 5 finishes.
  • Former Longhorn star looking for Austin barbeque and a chance to win for the first time since 2017.
  • "I love Austin," Spieth said. "I think of it as a second home."

Jordan Spieth was cruising down I-35 on Sunday morning, a bit sleepier than usual after staying up late the night before watching some March Madness action.

It was a little too much madness for his taste since his beloved Texas Longhorns had fallen by a single point.

“Yeah,” he said, “I was hoping to go to bed with six or seven minutes left and Texas up 15 points. It was hard to watch. That was really tough, especially with Andrew Jones being so clutch there late. That would have been the perfect ending.”

Until Abilene Christian’s Joe Pleasant hit a couple of equally clutch free throws to eliminate the third-seeded Longhorns 53-52 from the NCAA Tournament. Spieth’s mind is never too far away from all things Texan.

More from Bohls:Abilene Christian stuns Texas, puts coach Shaka Smart's job in jeopardy

Spieth took last week off from the PGA Tour to unwind, have a couple of beers with friends, grab a few tacos or other Tex-Mex meals and get in a practice or two.

With the Masters looming, he’s especially vigilant about COVID-19. Normally he’d have taken in a Mavs or Stars game during his short break, but both his parents and sister contracted the virus last summer and his brother, Steven, who lives in Austin and sells real estate at a Driftwood golf course, is almost the only contact Spieth has had with someone who hasn’t either had COVID-19 or been vaccinated. “Almost like herd immunity within our bubble at home,” he said.

Jordan Spieth hasn't won a tournament in four years but has a history of success at the Dell Match Play event. He's 7-2-1 all-time at that tournament.

While Spieth appreciated the time off, his thoughts never stray too long from golf.

“I do a pretty good job of shutting my mind off to golf,” he said, “but it’s amazing how when you go three, four weeks on the road, how much you're kind of still cooking, like when you take steak off the grill, it's still cooking.” 

Make no mistake. Spieth has been cooking of late despite a lengthy victory drought that has stretched to almost four years. He might not be as sizzling as, say, a Bryson DeChambeau or Justin Thomas, but he’s been on a pretty good heater himself.

Relaxed, reinvigorated and refocused after three top-five finishes in his last four starts, Spieth returns home this week to compete in the World Golf Championship-Dell Match Play. Well, his second home. The Dallas native jokes that he can actually get to Florida by jet to play in the Arnold Palmer Invitational faster than he can drive the three-plus hours to Austin.

“I love Austin,” he said. “I do think of it as a second home. And I’m excited for some Austin barbeque.”

As much as he’d like to win this week on a course where he frequently practiced as a Longhorn — same as other Dell entrants and former UT standouts Scottie Scheffler and Dylan Frittelli — that doesn’t mean the three-time major champion feels any more pressure playing the Dell than he does any other tournament. He opens play Wednesday against Matt Fitzpatrick (15th seed) in Group 15 along with Matthew Wolff (20th) and Corey Conners (37th). “I got a tough pod with two of the hottest players in the game and another one who is the highest ranked (within the group)," Spieth said. "So it’s a tall task.”

More from Bohls: Masters champ Dustin Johnson cream of the crop for Austin's Dell Match Play

In four tries at the Dell, he’s played much better than his results show. Despite an overall spectacular 7-2-1 record, he’s emerged out of the pool stage just once, that coming in 2016, the Dell’s first year in Austin. 

That year, he went unbeaten in his three group matches but was eliminated in the Round of 16 by eventual finalist Louis Oosthuizen. He survived group play that included Thomas, his Alabama buddy who’s fresh off a title at The Players Championship.

Jordan Spieth, right, and Bryson DeChambeau fist bump on the first tee box before the second round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill Club & Lodge on March 5.

Spieth said he's happy for his close friend, against whom he's competed since they were 13-year-olds on the junior tour, Spieth's Longhorns having beaten Thomas' Crimson Tide for an NCAA title, too. But then he added, “It lights a little fire under my ass. Same on number of wins. I want to continue down that path going forward. As cool as it is, we're also super competitive with each other, too.”

Thomas acknowledges as much, but they still root for each other. Up to a point. While Spieth has three majors to Thomas’ one, the latter won the PGA Championship, the one that has eluded the Longhorn. With 14, Thomas does have three more PGA Tour wins than Spieth.

“I’m very excited that he’s found his form again,” Thomas said. “He would still probably argue that he hasn’t. No golfer is everywhere they want to be. But he has his swagger back.”

Spieth won’t completely have it back until he’s in the winner’s circle, but he’s getting more comfortable and has put himself in position to win.

He did admit he “struggled” when he played in his hometown Byron Nelson tournament because “I wanted to win so bad,” but doesn’t feel any of that extra burden at Austin Country Club just 15 miles from the UT campus.

Don’t get it wrong. He still wants to win bad, but he wants to win anywhere. Doesn’t matter if it’s the Dell tournament or the Masters in three weeks. And he’s close to breaking through, having three impressive tournaments at Phoenix, Pebble Beach and Bay Hill and twice sharing 54-hole leads. Lackluster final rounds of 72 at Phoenix and 70 at Pebble Beach cost him.

He hasn’t held a championship trophy aloft since he captured The Open at Royal Birkdale in the summer of 2017, and he recently revealed to the Golf Channel that he had a bone chip in his left hand that greatly weakened his grip in 2018 and had much to do with his low driving and accuracy numbers.

“I didn’t (have surgery), but I probably should have,” Spieth said Monday. “I’m 27 and have a long road ahead of me. I have a lot of good to draw on and a few regrets. I don’t feel (the injury) now.”

He admits he was in a bit of denial about how much that impacted his swing. But his game is back in form now as one of golf’s premier ball-strikers who has already won three-fourths of the career Grand Slam, lacking only that PGA Championship where he was the runner-up in 2015. And he doesn’t see his lack of recent victories as a profound psychological hurdle.

“I don’t think so,” Spieth said. “It’s not like maybe Phil (Mickelson’s) pressure on having never won a major and then he continues to win in his 30s in these majors. I’m getting a little closer to what I want my swing to feel like. Mechanically, I’ve gotten a little bit more sound each week. There’s a little more trust.

“I’ve gone from definitely almost being lost with a chance to win at San Diego and Phoenix. My expectations are such where I’m not the guy where I’ve been in the past, but I’m not far off.”

If anything, Spieth think he’s close to the caliber of play when he was the best player in the world for 26 weeks.

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After he missed the cut at the Farmers Insurance Open, he fell to an uncharacteristically low 92nd in the world. But since then, he flirted with winning both the Phoenix Open and the Pebble Beach Pro-Am, finishing in ties for fourth and third.

He failed to crack the top 40 at The Players Championship where he historically has not fared well, tying for 48th. But he thinks he played decently despite not putting well, just “ran out of steam.” He’s since risen to No. 52 in the world and should be a contender every time he tees it up.

“My confidence is trending and growing,” Spieth said. “It’s kind of nice to see the difference in progression over the course of a month. I have more tools in the tool box than before. I still feel I haven’t played with my A game, and I know what that feels like. I just struggle with wanting that immediately rather than being patient and letting it run its course.”

Patience has never been Spieth's strong suit. Winning has.