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Spieth restores self as a major threat

by TIM COWLISHAW THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS | April 8, 2021 at 2:29 a.m.

DALLAS -- As we lurch toward a return to normalcy, at least some things are as they once were. To the most frequently asked question I seem to get -- "What local team is going to win the next championship?" -- order has been restored.

Team Spieth, of course.

With all due respect to the Mavericks' hot streak and perhaps even a nod to the Cowboys for finding a way to make a $160 million pledge to their quarterback seem palatable, it is the 27-year-old Dallas Jesuit graduate who stands the best chance to scale the sports peak and look down from on high at Augusta National this Sunday.

In the season's first major, a second green jacket is not out of the question for Jordan Spieth. The tournament already placed him in the final group for the opening round, a 1 p.m. Central start alongside Collin Morikawa and Cameron Smith today. Can a final pairing perhaps with Bryson DeChambeau or Dustin Johnson be in the cards for Spieth on Sunday afternoon?

Expectations that are high for Spieth were virtually nonexistent when the Masters was held in November due to the pandemic. At that time, Spieth was more than three years removed from his last Tour victory. A kid who won the Masters at 21, tying Tiger Woods' course record at the time, and followed up with a U.S. Open win that summer, then in 2017 added the British Open's Claret Jug to his trophy case -- his 11th professional win before his 24th birthday -- went silent for nearly four years.

We saw signs he was emerging from the darkness earlier this year when he contended in big tournaments, finishing fourth in Phoenix, third at Pebble Beach and fourth again at Bay Hill in Florida. Bad Sunday rounds stalled his return to victory lane.

That all changed a week ago when Spieth fired a final-round 66 to win in San Antonio, his 12th title and one that places him right behind Johnson and DeChambeau in the betting odds for this week's Masters.

"There's peaks and valleys in this sport," Spieth said after winning the Texas Open, "but I never expected to go this long."

Spieth was winless for three full seasons, finishing 31st in FedEx Cup points in 2018, 44th in 2019 and 107th a year ago. His world ranking had dropped all the way to 92nd not long ago. It's back up to 38th after the win in San Antonio, although that's hardly a relevant number for a guy who collected victories so easily at the start of his career.

"I feel like I'm in a better place than I was leading into the last couple of Masters," Spieth said on a recent Zoom call.

With at least a percentage of the "patrons" back on the grounds and playing the event in its rightful spring spot instead of November, this will feel much more like the Masters than the event Johnson won when he conquered a too-soft course for a record 20 under in November.

There's no question the greens will be slicker and the winds will blow harder. Although he's quite capable of going low, he has played his best in challenging setups. A week ago, he won in San Antonio when Tony Finau was the only competitor ranked in the top 20 in the world. And Finau didn't even make the cut.

Holding off Charley Hoffman and Matt Wallace is not the same as sliding past Justin Thomas or Rory McIlroy into the winner's circle at Augusta. But Spieth has loved this course and this event since his first look at it as an amateur, and nothing along those lines has changed.

"The Masters is the Masters," Spieth said. "They give out a jacket at the end, and it's a dream-come-true situation."

Things may not have been ideal for any of us lately, but for Spieth, they are closer than they have been in years.

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