AUGUSTA, Ga. — When he climbed up the slope of the tee box it was his turn, so Jordan Spieth put his peg in the ground and surveyed the elusive little temptress before him. This was 1:07 p.m. on Tuesday, 360 days after Spieth last played the 12th hole at Augusta National in competition. There it sat again, under an all but cloudless sky, with fans knowing exactly the relationship between this particular golfer, this particular place, and golf’s history.
“Did he make a 7?” one asked by way of review.
That he did. That he did.
What happened Tuesday, two days before the Masters begins, means nothing as it relates to the outcome of the tournament to come. But it is clear that Augusta’s 155-yard 12th, the damnedest little devil-in-sheep’s-clothing hole on earth, and Spieth, at 23 already a Masters champion and a tragic figure, remain intertwined.
“I’ve been pretty honest,” Spieth said Tuesday, “and I’ve answered every question.”
He has. Except the one that’s impossible to answer yet: How will he play that hole again when it matters?
Let’s do this here and now, because to look ahead to this week’s tournament, we must look back at last year’s. Englishman Danny Willett arranged Tuesday night’s champions dinner of mini cottage pies and a Sunday roast because he shot a fine bogey-free final round of 67. And yet, because of Spieth and No. 12, Willett is merely the answer to a trivia question. “Who won the 2016 Masters?” requires a jog of the brain. “Who lost the 2016 Masters?” is front and center.
“I certainly understand,” Spieth said. “I think it’s therapeutic, to an extent, if I talk about it.”
Recline on the couch and cleanse, then. We go through this exercise only as a reminder of what Spieth dealt with when he arrived at the 12th Tuesday, what he will deal with when he steps to that tee box Thursday, and what will be replayed for certain if he shows up there Sunday within a stroke or two of the lead.
Last year, he was coming off a bogey at the nearly impossible 11th, but he still held a three-stroke lead over Willett. And then: tee shot off the bank and into Rae’s Creek. After a drop, worse: a badly chunked wedge that had him asking for another ball before that one even sent ripples through the water. Overcompensating following his next drop, he bounced a shot off the back of the green into a bunker. What gets lost is that he did well to get up and down from there.
That, folks, is a quadruple-bogey 7. It’s why Spieth’s presence at the 12th during a casual Tuesday practice round made the galleries stop for a minute, why we’re wondering about the psychology of all this.
“How many errors do we make over the course of a tournament that put us out of a tournament?” Jason Day asked earlier Tuesday. “Who knows? The three-putt on a Thursday on the fifth hole has an effect on the score at the end of the week.”
This was no three-putt on Thursday. This was a 7 on Sunday. “I don’t want to call it a collapse,” Rory McIlroy said, and if it was, it was one Spieth contained, because he birdied two of the next three holes.
“I’m proud of my entire round,” Spieth said in what amounted to a small bit of defiance Tuesday. He has proven likable through this examination of how he would respond, just as McIlroy proved likable after he came to the 10th tee here in 2011, holding the lead on Sunday. Then, he yanked his drive into the cabins behind the trees that run along the left side of the fairway. McIlroy’s response in the moment: triple bogey at 10, bogey at 11, four-putt double bogey at 12, and a final-round 80. McIlroy’s response, in the macro view: a victory at his next major, the U.S. Open at Congressional.
“Look, it’s tough to get over,” McIlroy said. “Leaving and coming back here in 2012, of course your mind does go back to the previous year when you’re thinking about what could have been. ‘If only I had parred 10,’ and, ‘If only I didn’t three-putt 11.’ Those things do run through your mind.”
Spieth started to clear his mind when he returned here in December for a pair of casual rounds with friends. When he told the story earlier this season, he said he had joked with his playing partners when he arrived on the 12th tee, “Guys, we have some demons to get rid of here.” He played the hole twice, birdied it twice, and said the first 2 was even followed by a tourney-worthy fist pump.
Which brings us to 1:07 p.m. Tuesday, and the first time back here with fans lining the slope behind the tee box. The pin was slightly right of center on the narrow-as-a-necktie green, and Spieth pulled 8-iron. With two-time Masters champ Bubba Watson, first-time Masters participant William McGirt and amateur Brad Dalke looking on as his playing partners, Spieth sent the ball skyward.
This time, it settled all of two feet below the hole, the shot of a weekend hacker’s lifetime. He turned to the crowd.
“Coulda used that one 12 months ago,” he said.
The gallery laughed. For a moment, the past was the past, for sure.
“I can assure you,” McIlroy said. “Jordan will be fine.”
That’s most likely, of course. But the past also hasn’t been officially replaced by anything else. Not yet anyway. Jordan Spieth’s career Masters finishes are a tie for second, a win, and a tie for second. That is remarkable. But he and the 12th hole now have a tumultuous relationship, one that can’t be untangled in December with friends or on a Tuesday in practice. This is a matter for the weekend, and it’s one of the reasons to watch.