SOUTHPORT, England -- Anyone who has watched Jordan Spieth closely the past five years likely understands how obsessive he is about maintaining routines. He tries to hit the same number of balls in warm-ups before each round. He's used the same putter since he was 15 years old. His meticulous pre-shot routine almost never varies, even when he's criticized for slowing down play. He is a man who thrives most when he can disappear into the familiarity of the mundane.
It was somewhat surprising, then, to see Spieth chomping hard on a piece of gum as he worked his way around Royal Birkdale on Thursday in the first round of The Open. Even the most seasoned Spiethologists couldn't remember a round when they'd seen him play golf with gum in his mouth. For virtually any other player, it would seem an irrelevant observation -- gee, what a surprise, one of the world's best athletes can golf and chew gum at the same time -- but for someone so dogged about maintaining the status quo, it felt worthy of further inquiry.
"No," Spieth said with a chuckle when asked whether it was a conscious decision. His swing coach, Cameron McCormick, simply offered him a piece before he teed off. He absent-mindedly popped it in his mouth and aggressively gnawed at it without giving it much thought. Twenty minutes later, he decided it might actually be helping. "I was 1-under through two and I thought I better keep it in," he said. "Payne Stewart used to do it and it served him well. I think mint has some sort of effect on nerves, but I was still feeling them a bit out there."
Whether it was a placebo or served as an actual calming mechanism remains a mystery, but who can argue with the results? All Spieth did was shoot a bogey-free 65 in Round 1, a performance he described as one of the five best rounds he'd ever played in a major championship. (It was Spieth's lowest score ever at The Open.) His driving was far from perfect -- he hit only five of 14 fairways -- but his misses weren't disastrous and his iron play was nothing short of sublime. His distance control and ability to judge just how much the wind was going to affect the ball, even out of the rough, was borderline surreal.
"Everything was strong," Spieth said. "I give it a nine across the board for everything -- tee balls, ballstriking, short game and putting. I couldn't have done much better today."
There is still plenty of golf left to be played, of course. And it's likely that bad weather is on its way, a development that makes predictions a fool's errand. But there are also plenty of real signs (none of them candy-related) that this might be a special week for Spieth, the kind of major that thrusts him back into the argument for the best player in the world.
The idea that Spieth has struggled since his breakout season in 2015 -- when he won the year's first two majors and finished in the top five in the next two -- is mostly built on a misconception. Since the end of the 2014 season, Spieth has never gone more than 12 starts on the PGA Tour without a victory. But he was so good early in his career that it's no wonder our expectations rose to unrealistic levels.
Thursday did, however, snap a streak of five straight majors for Spieth in which he failed to break par in the opening round. He's spent plenty of time and energy trying to claw back from slow starts recently. It was invigorating to see Spieth play tactical, aggressive golf and surge to the top of the leaderboard on a Thursday.
"I've been putting in a lot of work with the putting and trying to get it back to the confidence that I've had the last couple of years," Spieth said. "It's just been the one thing that's been off this year. My ballstriking has been better than in any years that I've ever played golf."
Defending Open champion Henrik Stenson, who played in the same grouping as Spieth, said Thursday reminded him of a previous round the two men played together at a major.
"He was putting beautifully. I played with him in '15 when he won his green jacket [at the Masters], and he was rolling it superbly that week, and I don't think it was that far behind today," Stenson said. A big part of what makes watching Spieth so compelling, particularly when his swing is in a groove, is just how well he melds the science of golf with the art of scoring. Unlike Dustin Johnson or Brooks Koepka, Spieth rarely makes golf look effortless. He makes it look like a puzzle he and caddie Michael Greller are trying to solve by committee, talking through the physics of each option before settling on the highest probability.
Even when Spieth hit it offline, he managed to think his way back into holes. On the second hole, he drove into long wispy grass off the tee, had an awkward lie on top of a mound, and still made birdie after he hit a towering 6-iron 12 feet past the flag. On No. 16, he got up and down from a horrendous lie in the bunker for a momentum-saving par, and then made an easy birdie on the 17th, reaching the par-5 with two perfect shots.
As impressive as Spieth's five birdies were, though, it was the calculations he and Greller did for his second shot on the sixth hole -- a 499-yard monster par-4 where 75 players in the field made bogey or worse Thursday -- that offered the best window into Spieth's analytical mind.
Standing in the fairway 200 yards from the green, Spieth surmised that the wind was against him much in the way it was on the driving range. During warm-ups, McCormick fired up his TrackMan -- the $25,000 launch monitor that uses radar to calculate spin rate, launch angle and distance -- and started cataloguing how much shorter Spieth's irons were flying in the 55-degree weather and with the wind. Some of his shots were ending up 35 yards shorter than they were during practice in the 90-degree weather in Dallas. That helped Spieth build a baseline that he simply had to trust. Team Spieth had never brought a TrackMan to a tournament before, but McCormick had a hunch it might be helpful this time.
"I was able to know how far that ball would carry, and then I can trust that," Spieth said. "And that's the most important thing. Because you feel like you're hitting so much club. You feel like you're going to fly the world." The 23-year-old Spieth belted a 4-iron into a robust wind, then let the breeze pull it back toward the middle of the green. Normally a 4-iron flies 225 yards for Spieth, but he knew 190 yards would be just enough to get the ball there. His Titleist landed on the front edge, then trickled forward just enough, leading to a relatively stress-free two-putt par that picked up half a shot on the field. It wasn't the sexiest swing of the day, but it was arguably one of the most valuable considering the difficulty.
In addition to using technology, Spieth conceded he's made one other change recently that's helped him regain his edge. He's been more consistent getting to the gym and understanding his diet. He'll still indulge in a burger and beer on occasion, but he says he now has a better understanding of what he needs to eat to stay injury-free and maintain his stamina. His breakfast on Thursday? Eggs, avocado and toast along with orange juice and a protein shake.
"It matters, I think, what you put in your body and then how you take care of it, and then how that translates into results that I've seen in my swing on the course this year," Spieth said. "I enjoy hitting the ball better. It makes me happier."
Someone on Team Spieth might want to run to the store tonight and stock up on sugar-free mint gum. Might mean nothing, but when you're chasing the Claret Jug, it's worth contemplating every possibility, every probability, however strange it might seem.