For­mer No. 1 Spi­eth moves wrong way

San Francisco Chronicle - - SPORTS - Ron Kroichick is a San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle staff writer. Email: [email protected] sfchron­i­ Twit­ter: @ronkroichick

PEB­BLE BEACH — Mov­ing Day on the PGA Tour is a fickle crea­ture. The game’s top play­ers of­ten ma­neu­ver into po­si­tion, oc­ca­sion­ally ris­ing from far back in the pack to sud­denly give them­selves a chance to win.

Jor­dan Spi­eth went the other way Satur­day.

Spi­eth even­tu­ally will hoist a tro­phy again. He’s too skilled, too smart and too com­pet­i­tive to plunge out of sight, but that’s ex­actly what he did on a wet, blus­tery day at the AT&T Peb­ble Beach Pro-Am.

Paul Casey, con­versely, climbed atop the heap. His 67 at Spy­glass Hill moved him to 15un­der-par 200 and gave him a three-stroke lead over Phil Mick­el­son (who shot 70 at Peb­ble Beach) en­ter­ing Sun­day’s fi­nal round.

Spi­eth, af­ter fall­ing into a tie for 18th, will com­plete his 34th con­sec­u­tive tour start with­out a vic­tory. He hasn’t won since the Bri­tish Open in July 2017, a strik­ing streak for golf’s one­time golden boy.

He won five tour­na­ments in 2015, in­clud­ing the Mas­ters and U.S. Open. He won three more times in the first seven months of ’17, in­clud­ing the AT&T and that Open at Royal Birk­dale, where his back-nine, fi­nal-round surge top­pled Matt Kuchar.

Spi­eth spent 26 weeks in all at No. 1 in the world rank­ing. Now he’s down to No. 21 and search­ing for an­swers.

He planted him­self in the hunt the past few days, un­til he played Satur­day’s fi­nal six holes at Peb­ble Beach in 4-over-par. That quickly, he signed for 74 and dropped from the thick of con­tention (tied for sec­ond) to a vir­tual af­ter­thought.

“I’m very frus­trated,” Spi­eth said af­ter fin­ish­ing with a bo­gey on No. 17 and dou­ble bo­gey on No. 18. “If I just go par-par (to fin­ish), I’m es­sen­tially still in this tour­na­ment with what’s fore­cast to­mor­row. I kind of threw my­self out of the tour­na­ment.”

Spi­eth, to his credit, stopped to speak with re­porters af­ter his round. It would have been easy for him to stomp away, an­gry about his mis­ad­ven­tures on the course. But he al­ways has been poised and pro­fes­sional be­yond his years — an old soul, as the say­ing goes.

His slump isn’t shock­ing in some ways, be­cause Spi­eth, 25, soared to promi­nence de­spite mod­est power off the tee. Most elite, 21st-cen­tury play­ers hit the ball a coun­try mile. Spi­eth need only look at Dustin John­son, the other pro in his group the past three days, for con­fir­ma­tion.

But Spi­eth be­came the world’s top player mostly be­cause of his putting. He was ninth on tour in strokes gained/putting in 201415 and sec­ond in 201516; last sea­son, he fin­ished 123rd in the same cat­e­gory.

Steve Stricker, another player known for his work on the greens, in­sisted Spi­eth will re­dis­cover his touch and re­sume jostling with John­son and Co. for supremacy.

“He’ll come back,” Stricker said. “It’s the na­ture of the game, the ups and downs of golf. I think it’s a lit­tle un­fair that we all judge Jor­dan off what he did his (third) year on tour, win­ning all those ma­jors and tour­na­ments. …

“He’s got a good head on his shoul­ders and a good sup­port sys­tem. He’ll get it go­ing again.”

Spi­eth was un­com­monly wild off the tee Satur­day, an is­sue he couldn’t over­come on the bumpy, rain-soaked greens. He pulled his tee shot into a tree on No. 13, lead­ing to dou­ble bo­gey, and pulled another tee shot into the wa­ter on No. 18, again lead­ing to dou­ble bo­gey.

Ear­lier, when a tor­rent of rain drenched the course for about 45 min­utes, Spi­eth held it to­gether with a string of pars. But he strug­gled to con­trol his ball over the last six holes — and that cost him.

“It kind of stinks,” he said, “be­cause I re­ally had it go­ing the last cou­ple days and just didn’t have the same rhythm to­day.”

Mick­el­son, mean­time, man­aged to stay in the fray as he chases his fifth Pro-Am ti­tle. He made four bo­geys in his first 10 holes Satur­day, then re­sponded with a birdie on No. 13 and ea­gle on No. 14, where he hit his sec­ond shot (down­wind, from 237 yards) to 3 feet.

Mick­el­son, at age 48, would make a strong state­ment — as in, he’s still a fac­tor — if he catches Casey and wins Sun­day.

Casey, a 41-year-old English­man, is seek­ing only his third PGA Tour ti­tle. He spent sev­eral years on the Euro­pean Tour ear­lier in his ca­reer, but he re­turned to Peb­ble Beach for last year’s AT&T and tied for eighth.

Now, af­ter tak­ing flight on Mov­ing Day, Casey has a chance Sun­day.

Jeff Gross / Getty Im­ages

Third-round leader Paul Casey plays his sec­ond shot on the first hole Satur­day at the Peb­ble Beach Pro-Am at Spy­glass Hill. He fin­ished eighth a year ago.

Harry How / Getty Im­ages

Jor­dan Spi­eth, shown on the ninth tee Satur­day, is 21st in the world af­ter spend­ing 26 weeks at No. 1.

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