AUGUSTA, Ga. —A pair of Georgia pines fell on Jordan Spieth’s head on the final two holes of the third round of the Masters here on Saturday. Or at least that’s what it looked like had happened to him after he staggered off the Augusta National course with a concluding bogey and double-bogey. Those totally self-inflicted and utterly unnecessary mistakes — in his view — cut what could have been an imposing, dominant four-shot lead for a green jacket into just one slim, perilous stroke. He didn’t just open the Masters door to a dozen competitors, he kicked it down and sent each one an engraved invitation: Come beat me Sunday.
Seldom has a player who has been so great so recently suddenly confronted a fresh test that will be so difficult. The man who, with a handful of breaks, might have won the Grand Slam last season, and did win both the Masters and U.S. Open, may face the toughest recovery act of his young career.
The candor and instant in-depth analysis with which the 22-year-old faced his situation afterward went far beyond the usual definition of abnormal maturity. Spieth disassembled a brutal experience, which was only minutes old, evaluated its component parts, freely admitted that he might just have blown the Masters and then began the process of, he hopes, overcoming his blunders, forgiving himself his mental mistakes and fixing several parts of his game that are driving him crazy. Some people, like me, may end up more impressed with his response to crisis than whether, amidst the fog of final-round major tournament golf, he actually pulls out his second straight green jacket.
“It was a really tough finish to go from holding a four-shot lead and being in a very similar position to last year to where all of a sudden now it’s anyone’s game,” said Spieth, who has shot 66-74-73 to sit at 3-under-par 213. “So it’s tough to swallow that. . . .
“The last two days I played the 16th, 17th and 18th holes in 5 over par. There is no challenge in those holes really,” Spieth said. “You should be able to hit the three greens in regulation. They’re not the hard holes out here. That’s what’s so tough for me. If I play them 1 over par.” Yup, you’re five shots ahead.
Then Spieth caught himself, almost like he was smacking himself in the face in public. “Even just saying that right now — I can’t think like that,” he said.
What would he do next? “Probably go break something really quick,” he said, to laughter. “It’ll be tough to put it behind [me]. I think I will. But that wasn’t fun. . . . I’m not going to dodge the question. . . . Hopefully I just sleep it off and it’s fine tomorrow. I imagine that will be the case.”
But he didn’t pretend he was certain.
In particular, Spieth trashed his own decision to hit driver on the 17th hole in a way so specific and with such merciless self-examination that I’m not sure I’ve seen any golfer, minutes after a stunning experience, collect himself so well, while also facing with complete clarity what truly significant damage he’d done to his chances to win back-to-back Masters.
Instead of being four shots ahead of little-known Smylie Kaufman and five shots ahead of both 58-year-old two-time Masters winner Bernhard Langer and talented 24-year-old Hideki Matsuyama — none of them daunting challengers — Spieth had opened the door to perhaps a dozen other players at even-par or higher, including formidable Jason Day and Dustin Johnson, three shots behind him, and even Rory McIlroy (77), whose chance should have been dead, who is five shots back.
“I’ve just got to throw this away and not think about the finish. This is where I wanted to be after three rounds — in the lead,” Spieth said. That’s where almost every golfer for decades has stopped, expect perhaps Jack Nicklaus, who couldn’t resist telling the truth about himself when he staggered.
“It’s mixed feelings right now. But that’s tough to swallow,” Spieth said. Then he shook his head as the negative recent memories seemed to swirl around him in the classic demon dance that every golfer at every level understands. “I can’t think that way,” he said.
If anybody can fix his own head in 18 hours, and also get rid of “that [miss to the] right shot that’s been killing me all week with my irons,” it’s probably Spieth. But that doesn’t mean he will. As he knows.
And that’s just one more thing that’s so wonderful about major-tournament golf. It tests the shots, the analytical powers and the nerves. But it also demands a kind of chilling solitary character-mining — put on that hard helmet with the light in front, but point it inward toward your own brain and spirit. Find gold. Or come back with nothing but rocks.
One of the glories of the Masters is that it measures so many talents, both physical and especially mental, and does so with such vicious pressure, that it is absolutely impossible to define what sort of player will prosper here, over four days or an entire career. Except that he’ll have to be so tough that if every tree in the Amen Corner has landed on him, he’ll have to get up and stagger forward.
Augusta National is such a total golf inspection that simplistic analyses of the event, especially the truism that mammoth sluggers who are all-around top-of-the-world players have a major advantage here, are ripped to shreds. Those belters who supposedly were “born to play” this course and ultimately own multiple green jackets may actually bear an extra burden.
While Spieth, who is only 62nd in driving distance on the PGA Tour, still holds the lead, McIlroy, Day and Johnson, ranked No. 1, No. 3 and No. 8 in the world and also among the longest hitters, continue to discover that they may have been fed an illusion by all the people who’ve told them for years that they should “own” the Masters and that there’s no excuse why their long high-ball-hitting game should not find glory here. If none of that trio win on Sunday, they’ll be o for 21 in their Masters careers.
Many a Masters champ was, in fact, enormously long off the tee. Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Arnold Palmer, Sam Snead, Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson, Tom Watson and Seve Ballesteros won 26 Masters.
But something else is valued even more. Spieth will go in search of it now. He’s putting on the hard-hat of self-knowledge now and heading into the dark mine of himself, of his Saturday disappointment and his Sunday hopes. We’ll soon find out if he brings back gold.