There are two ways to travel from Liberty National’s 16th green to 17th tee. Most players choose to walk along the grass behind the green. The shortcut is a path of uneven rocks that bisects the lake that adds some risk to this drivable par-4.
Matthew Wolff isn’t afraid to take a path less traveled. His unique swing is immediately identifiable, and it’s led to quick success on the PGA TOUR. Wolff, 20, won in just his third start as a pro.
He crossed the rocks first, then turned back to his playing partner, the former FedExCup champion Jordan Spieth. “Be careful, old man,” he jokingly said before Spieth safely traversed the rocky trail.
Wolff and Spieth played together for the first time this week and became fast friends. They walked side-by-side down several fairways while engaging in conversation. Spieth called it a “good hang.”
Wolff may have been the trailblazer on 16, but he is following in the footsteps of Spieth by winning shortly after turning pro to qualify for the FedExCup Playoffs and making a run at the Presidents Cup team. Spieth was quick to give advice, but he has learned from Wolff as well.
Spieth just turned 26, but he’s seen a lot in his six-year career. He’s reached the heights of the game, winning the FedExCup and three major championships, but now is mired in a winless streak that recently crossed the two-year mark.
When things are going well, you end up getting all of the bounces, too. You’re playing well, you’re confident, you’re positive the whole time. And when you’re not, they just don’t. Some would say the ‘golf gods,’ but that’s just the way it works. I felt like I stole one or two.
He sees some of his old self in Wolff. The uninhibited freedom and lack of concern about a swing that deviates from the norms. Playing with Wolff for the first two rounds of THE NORTHERN TRUST was refreshing for Spieth, who’s still fighting his way out of a season-long slump.
“We had a great time together,” Spieth said. “He swings his own swing, which I can certainly look at and say, maybe I don't have to be perfect.
“I can learn stuff from him. When you look back, it's more similar to me when I was 20 than I am now. I can actually learn how to get back to that style of golf, which is a better way to play the game.”
Wolff, who started this week on the BMW Championship bubble, shot 69-71 in the first two rounds. It looks like he will squeak inside the cut line to keep his Playoffs hopes alive. He is 70th in the FedExCup standings. The top 70 advance to next week’s BMW Championship.
Spieth, on the other hand, held the 36-hole lead when the morning wave completed play. He sits at 11-under 131 after shooting 64 on Friday. He has just one bogey in two rounds.
Even as Spieth has struggled this season, it’s not the weekdays that have been a problem. The biggest concern has been his weekend play. The next two days will offer another opportunity to rectify that trend. He’s in the top 10 of scoring on Thursdays and Fridays, but outside the top 170 in both weekend rounds.
“I still have the firepower, but that consistency is what I'm trying to get back,” Spieth said.
If there’s been a promising sign this week, it’s that Spieth hasn’t had to rely solely on his putter. That club has been a crutch while he’s struggled with his ballstriking. He’s had several of the best putting performances of his career this season. It’s how he contended at the PGA Championship and Charles Schwab Challenge and found himself on the leaderboard halfway through last week’s Wyndham Championship.
He’s holed just one putt outside 20 feet this week, a 30-footer for birdie on the par-3 fourth hole Friday. He’s missed just seven greens through two rounds. He’s gaining strokes off the tee, as well.
The real test will be this weekend, when the pressure increases and the tee times get later. Spieth’s weekend struggles this season have been well-documented. He also shot 131 in the first two rounds of the Wyndham Championship, but missed the 54-hole cut after shooting 77 on Saturday. Spieth hit three shots O.B. last week.
“I think that the turnaround in ball-striking week-to-week is certainly awesome to see that it's possible, that it was close,” he said.
His driver has been the last club to come around, and he didn’t drive the ball as well as he’d like on his final nine. He was still able to shoot 32 on that side despite hitting just three fairways.
He missed three of his final four fairways Friday. That’s when he called his putter into action. It’s a good safety net to have.
He had to make an 11-footer for par on the eighth hole after he drove into a fairway bunker and his next shot landed in a bad lie in an old divot.
He pushed his tee shot on his final hole right into a bad lie in the fescue, but was able to take a drop because his feet were on the cart path. That gave him a better lie, and he was able to hit his 200-yard approach to 19 feet. He ended the day by sinking the putt.
“There were still some good shots,” Spieth said. “They were tighter than they have been, but I did get a little off on my back nine with the long clubs, so I'd really like to fine-tune that for tomorrow's round. If I'm putting the ball in the right positions off the tee, I feel really confident about the rest of the game.”