Thomas Boswell: At 20, Jordan Spieth could be poised to make history at Augusta

As Jordan Spieth, 20, and his caddie, sixth-grade teacher Michael Greller, left the practice tee before the third round of the Masters on Saturday, Greller turned to second-round leader Bubba Watson, who won here just two years ago. “We’ll see you in the final group on Sunday,” he said.

“I told ‘em, ‘Then you better play good,’ ” recalled Watson, after he’d shot 74 on Saturday. “Guess I should have played a little better myself.”

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

Spieth certainly did, shooting 70 to reach 5 under par and join Watson in that final pairing — the 2012 champion and a youngster who could top Tiger Woods as the youngest Masters champion. Who said Tiger wasn’t here, sort of? Or that this would devolve into the low-expectations Masters.

“Love the kid. No fear. Like a vet,” Watson said of Spieth, whom he knows well. “When did he start [on Tour], like when he was 15 playing in the Byron Nelson?” No, all of 16.

“He’s young. Nerves are no big deal to him.”

Bubba was informed that young Spieth said he would call him “Mr. Watson, for sure. Just because it’ll mess with him.”

“That’s fine,” said Watson, one of the longest hitters on earth, “when I’m hitting it past him.”

Maybe, by the final holes, both Bubba and the babe will be long gone. But they’re center stage now.

Golf has, indeed, awaited Spieth’s arrival as it has few other players. He was not only given that exemption in his home town of Dallas to play the Nelson, but the slim 6-foot-1 Spieth and Woods are the only players to win multiple U.S. Junior titles. He was a star at Texas and for the 2011 Walker Cup team. Washington saw him lead the AT&T National at Congressional after two rounds and finish sixth. Just a month later he became the first teenager since Ralph Guldahl in 1931 to win on the PGA Tour.

Nobody here is shocked that Spieth is on the leader board. After all, the three people who have given him tips on how to play Augusta National this week indicate his status — present and future. Who has helped him? “Carl Jackson, first and foremost, longtime caddie for Ben Crenshaw,” said Spieth, who is polished beyond his years (and probably beyond ours, too). “I told Michael I was going to buy a T-shirt for him that says, ‘Carl says,’ because he keeps saying that to me all the time out there.

“Mr. Crenshaw was very helpful. I had a little talk with Mr. Nicklaus and he helped me out — Wednesday evening at a dinner here. . . . I don’t really want to get into specifics about what they said. But, yeah, certain things.”

Knowing Jack, it might have been something confidence building, like Bobby Jones’s words to him when he was young about how great he could be and, by the way, don’t wait to get started, just win.

This Spieth’s Tale, already edging toward golf legend or fantasy, shouldn’t be undersold just because Spieth the phenomenal talent has been familiar within the game for so long. Great as his promise may be, Sunday is likely to have an ending more appropriate to his age than to his gifts. Anyone expecting him to win should understand the unfairness of the request and how astronomical an accomplishment it actually would be. Spieth isn’t just playing his first Masters, he claims he’s never even seen greens, or a course in general, as terrifying as the one here this week, under increasingly hard, fast, dry conditions.

“There are front pins that you really couldn’t stay below, so you’re going to be putting downhill, down grain, and it’s almost like you’re putting on rolling gravel. It was picking up speed even as it went by the hole. It was crazy, crazy fast out there,” said Spieth. “I’ve never putted on greens like this before.”

Even selecting targets here, much less hitting them on a Masters Sunday, is new to Spieth. “I’ve never picked so many targets at the middle of the greens,” said the notoriously bold flag-hunter. This week, Greller has been saying, ‘Right there. Right there,” pointing away from sticks.

“I’m like, well, I want to go at the pin,” Spieth said. “But you can’t do it here.”

Few players concede how much the pressure of a major affects their behavior. Normally, Spieth is a composed, quiet purposeful player. This week, he’s talked to himself constantly during play, reassuring himself that “we’re going to be all right” and “we’ll make bogey at worst” or “hit the smart shot.”

In one way, the Masters may be the hardest major for a young player to win — because it’s so linked to golf fantasies in boyhood. “I’m 20 and this is the Masters and this is a tournament I’ve always dreamt about and, like Mr. Crenshaw has always said, it brings out more emotion than ever in somebody,” said Spieth who’s staying with his parents and brother here.

To fight that excess emotion, Spieth has reduced stimuli: Phone off, TV off, no stories about him, or replay pictures of his great shots, are allowed to clutter his brain.

While such maturity is typical of him, it also reflects that he’s a typical athletic prodigy — not just in golf — with “a team” of people surrounding, supporting, teaching and polishing him. Don’t think of him as cuddly. He and the self-deprecating Bubba may be in the same Bible study class, but that doesn’t mean they focus on the same parables.

Spieth may have an advantage in only one key way. Over the years, players learn the nuances of the Augusta National and that local knowledge insulates them from brainless mistakes and teaches them imaginative solutions to trouble shots. But Masters experience cuts — and slashes, tears and scars — both ways. The more you play here, the more the course takes its pounds of flesh, and confidence. You learn the course but also what it can — and, time after time, actually does — do to you.

The first time Fuzzy Zoeller played the Masters, he played every shot exactly as his veteran Augusta National caddie told him, never had a thought or a doubt in his head, didn’t know how often the winds shift and turn a “perfect” shot into what the world decides to call a “choke.” Zoeller won.

Fuzzy came back here every April for the rest of his career and only finished in the top 10 once. The Masters learned him and chewed him up with bad memories.

Jordan Spieth has none of those. Perhaps some will arrive on Sunday. Last group, pegs in the ground at 2:40 p.m.: Innocence and experience in an arm wrestling contest. Might not want to miss it.

For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.

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