Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Golden: Jordan Spieth showed some signs at Dell Match Play but drought continues

Spieth's last win was 2017 Open Championship

Texas ex Jordan Spieth walks across the 18th green after missing a birdie putt during a round of 16 match against Matt Kuchar in the Dell Match Play tournament Saturday. Kuchar won the hole and the match.
  • Kuchar topped Spieth 1-up
  • Spieth had a chance to lead on the 16th hole but missed a short putt.

A 7-foot putt.

Jordan Spieth used to make those in his sleep.

But golf is a tricky game, one in which the mind is often a more formidable opponent than the course.

In Saturday’s World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play round of 16, Spieth faced all three: the hilly Austin Country Club course, his mind and, most daunting, veteran Matt Kuchar, the man he topped the last time he won a PGA Tour event.

Spieth’s start was a microcosm of his roller-coaster career. He birdied the first two holes sending Longhorn fans in attendance into an early frenzy. But Kuchar, a cagey graybeard who is all too familiar with these match-play streets, rallied and made the shots that mattered down the stretch to eliminate the Texan 1-up in an 18-hole thriller.

Bohls:Underdogs survive in the wonderful, wacky WGC-Dell Match Play

Kuchar met the challenge, having come through one of the most hellacious pools in the tourney. The No. 46 seed had plenty of momentum after topping No. 2 Justin Thomas, Dell defending champion Kevin Kisner and 2010 Open Championship winner Louis Oosthuizen.

It was marvelous theater, even if it wasn’t the ending many of the locals had hoped to see.

“I’m just sad that one had to end,” Kuchar said.

Matt Kuchar, right, is congratulated by Texas ex  Jordan Spieth after Kuchar won the 18th hole and the match Saturday. Spieth had a chance to take the lead on hole No. 16 but missed a short putt.

In a year that has seen him come close to breaking a drought that will be four years in July, Spieth came oh so close to reaching the quarterfinals for the first time in five tries.

It was a real dogfight with Kuchar, reminiscent of their 2017 final-round pairing at the Open Championship, where Spieth held him off for the three-stroke win.

Who could have ever imagined that we would be sitting here in 2021 looking back on that tourney as the last time Spieth visited the winner’s circle?

Victory was in his grasp Saturday, though not without a little controversy. Kuchar sprayed his second shot well right on the par-6 16th and solicited spectators to help him find his ball, which was somewhere embedded in the deep rough. Spieth, who was safely in the fairway about 90 yards from the hole, sportingly joined in the search. Once the ball was found, it was deemed unplayable, and Kuchar was awarded a free placement, a definite upgrade.

If there was any controversy about the decision, it was quickly swept aside after Spieth chipped to within 7 feet of the cup, needing only to sink the ensuing putt to win the hole and put all the pressure on his opponent with just two holes remaining.

It slid right. After the halved 17, Spieth overcooked his approach on the par-3 18th while Kuchar’s attempt nestled in 6 feet from the cup. Spieth's putt from 30 feet was nice but not nice enough to force a playoff.

Jordan Spieth signals down the fairway on #10 tee box during the fourth day of the WGC Dell Technologies Match Play golf tournament at Austin Country Club.

Kuchar finished it, denying Spieth a spot in the quarters and extending his streak to 84 tournaments without a win since Royal Birkdale.

While Saturday’s opening and some solid moments in pool play reminded us of the Spieth who burst on the scene six years ago, the inability to finish has been a constant yet unwelcome companion in his bag of late.

The 27-year-old showed up on a bit of a heater. After missing the cut at the Farmer’s Insurance Open in January, Spieth entered the Dell having shot 43 under par in his last five outings, though the ability to close the deal wasn’t there with final rounds of 70-plus in his last six events.

There isn’t anything wrong with three top-five finishes in your last five tournaments, but he just hasn’t broken through, as evidenced by not being able to hold the lead entering the final round of two of those tournaments.

After routing Corey Conners on Friday to advance to the knockout round, Spieth likened match play to a week of final groupings. And the accompanying pressure.

"You feel like you're competing on the weekend," he said. "I've had a number of times where it's been me and another guy on a Sunday separated from the field, and it's kind of a little bit of that feeling. You get the nerves going more so than you do on any Thursday or Friday and even most Saturdays.”

This all raises two questions: Are we witnessing a Jordan Spieth who is going through a prolonged slump because he hasn’t won a tournament since capturing three majors in his first 11 tries at the tender age of 23? Or is this the real Jordan Spieth, a really good player who amazingly caught lightning in a bottle in his early days and is simply trying to stay afloat in arguably the deepest PGA Tour of the modern era?

He’s a worker, so expect things to continue on an upward arc moving forward. He played good golf in this tournament, though he was much happier with his chipping than he has been with his putting over the past two events.

The guess here is Spieth, still very young and already the owner of 11 Tour titles in six years, is good enough to land a handful of majors before he hangs them up, but the guy we’ve seen over the past four years is trending toward pretty good but not spectacular.