Tuesday, May 11, 2021

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Spieth and Fowler: Golf Prodigies Seek a Way Back From the Wilderness

Not so long ago Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler were ascending PGA Tour stars. Now they feel each other’s pain and trade notes. Can they get their grooves back?

ORLANDO, Fla. — It is remarkably difficult to be great at the highest level of golf at a young age. It is even harder to fail at golf after early triumphs.

For the past year, Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler, wunderkinds from the same generation who became close friends, have been living with the good and the bad of their precociousness.

It is a peculiar type of purgatory because it is so public. “The hardest part,” Spieth said Wednesday, “is that it’s almost impossible to struggle in silence, in darkness, to get your work done in the dark.”

Once among the game’s most spotlighted attractions, Spieth ranks 62nd in the world, even after a recent comeback. Fowler, equally popular, has slumped to 65th.

The two now strive to quietly, even secretly, rebuild their golf games, but their celebrity denies them a necessary haven from scrutiny.

“There’s just going to be so much noise around and so much emphasis on results versus the true understanding of what your end goal is and how much time that can take in golf,” Spieth, 27, said of the restorative process.

Basic competency at the game deserts every golfer periodically, and it’s no different for the world’s best players, although their definition of basic competency is quite different. But a bewildered recreational golfer and a confused, 90th-ranked PGA Tour pro are the same in this way: Each can disappear to the unobserved end of the practice range to try to reclaim — or more likely revise — a swing gone wrong.

When something similar happens to a three-time major winner like Spieth — or to Fowler, a Players Championship winner who has finished second at the Masters, the British Open and the United States Open (and third at the P.G.A. Championship) — there is no escaping to a private spot for a mental and physical rebuild. Instead, the fits and starts of reinventing their golf games are chronicled and evaluated day by day, double bogey by double bogey.

Which is not how anyone escapes from golf hell.

“It’s tough for all of us that are involved, from my caddie to my wife — she’s having to deal with me at home,” Fowler, 32, said Tuesday near the practice range for the Arnold Palmer Invitational, which begins Thursday. “I’m trying to be the best husband that I can, not bringing golf back home, but when you’re out on the road that long, on the grind and putting in the work at home, it’s pretty much been all golf.”

Fowler’s biggest hobby away from golf has been fishing. His slump has curtailed that as well.

“A lot of people have asked, ‘Have you been able to fish much at home?’” he said. “But not really, no, because the days that I have off I just take completely off. Everything else has been workout, therapy and golf.”

Fowler, as optimistic a player as there is on the PGA Tour, smiled. It is his go-to reaction. But even he had to concede, “It’s frustrating.”

For Spieth, whose world ranking dropped to 82nd at the end of last season, troubles with his golf game emerged in 2018-19. First he tried just to find his way back to the promised land, a place he had inhabited as a 20-year-old, when he was three strokes away from becoming the youngest Masters winner ever. In time, as Spieth failed to return to the winner’s circle, myriad issues were cited: his alignment, his putting, his confidence, his ability to finish on the weekends of tournaments.

Away from the golf course, Spieth worked as furtively as he could on a subtle but consequential swing modification, and on something simpler: consistency. In his last three tournaments, he has been rejuvenated, tying for fourth, third and 15th, his best three-event stretch since mid-2019.

That rally has led reporters to ask if Spieth has tried to counsel Fowler, who in his last 10 events dating to October 2020 has missed the cut four times and finished outside the top 25 four other times.

Spieth said the two had talked with each other, and he acknowledged that there were similarities between his struggles and Fowler’s. But in many ways, Spieth said, it still comes back to the notion that change is hard in golf, even for those once called prodigies.

“He’s trying to make changes with an end goal to be more consistent and better than he ever was — and they’re significant changes,” Spieth said. “So it’s not going to be easy. You can’t just continue to compete and win while you’re trying to make big changes. These guys are too good out here.”

But Spieth has faith in his buddy, the former shaggy-haired young wizard who turned pro when he was 20.

“He’s got a lot more people in his corner than are not and that believe in him, and he believes in himself,” Spieth said.

Fowler vowed not to be distracted by the focus on what he called “his valley.”

“It’s a matter of time,” he said. But he added, “I’m ready to be past that.”

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