From the brow of the bunker in the crook of the dogleg midway down Augusta’s 2nd fairway the ground falls away so steeply the course seems to unfold itself beneath your feet, a great green blanket spread across the Georgia countryside.
Jordan Spieth arrived at this particular corner of the course around 3pm, as the sun was starting to emerge for the first time that day. He stood there for a while, studying the land, plotting his next shot.
Beyond the green and the thousands of fans surrounding it, he could see one of Augusta’s great white scoreboards. It listed the names of his nearest competitors, none far under par, and only one within three shots of his lead. From where everyone else was standing, Spieth, silhouetted against the sky, looked the master of all he surveyed. One wondered then what those 16 holes below had in store for him. It turned out to be a more extraordinary story than he or anyone else could possibly have imagined.
Before Spieth had even stepped on to the 1st tee he had already done something no other golfer in the history of the game had managed. He had led the Masters for seven consecutive rounds. No one, not Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods, had ever held on to first place for so long. In two years, pitched against more than 100 different golfers, over 126 holes, in all manner of different conditions, he had never once let slip the lead, despite the almost intolerable pressure he must have felt at points along the way. On Sunday he tightened his grip around the front nine, which he covered in 32 strokes. After that pause on the 2nd he hit his second shot right on to the front of green, then rolled a putt 70 feet from around the lip of a bunker to set up his first birdie of the day.
At the vicious little par-three 4th Spieth hit his tee-shot far to the right in the rough and was lucky that it did not roll on into a bamboo thicket. But he scrambled up and down to save par. That felt like a resilient recovery but it paled in comparison with what he did after dropping a shot at the 5th. Spieth hit his second shot way right into the lee of the grandstand, then missed a putt from 16 feet.
But he followed that bogey with four consecutive birdies at the 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th. For 60 minutes the 80th Masters became a procession. At the par-three 6th he holed a putt from five yards. At the 7th he hit a superb approach to three feet. At the 8th his second shot left him 11 yards from the hole and he then chipped in and putted out. And at the 9th he made a 21-foot putt.
At the turn, then, Spieth was seven-under par. He was the only man in the field who had been that low all week, back in the second round when he reached eight under. And now he was leading by five shots from Danny Willett. He was as comfortable as a man can be heading into the back nine of Augusta on the Sunday of the Masters. And then, of course, everything started to go wrong. Spieth’s grip finally began to loosen on the 10th, where his second shot found the bunker to the right side of the green. From there he took three shots, missing one putt from only four feet. That cost him one shot. On the 11th he lost another. His drive flew right into the trees. He punched his way out, then hit a brilliant third shot to eight feet. But he missed the putt. All of a sudden his lead was down to a single shot.
Spieth was in Amen Corner now. The most storied part of the course. It was the writer Herbert Warren Wind who gave it the name, after a song by Mildred Bailey. “You’ll find out on judgment day,” the lyrics go, “that you can’t fool the lord that way.” Spieth turned to play the famous 12th, Golden Bell, another wicked par-three, over the far side of Rae’s Creek, where the wind swirls and gusts so unpredictably.
The locals joke that the 12th has broken more men than marriage and moonshine. The next five minutes will go down as some of the most infamous in the hole’s long history. Spieth set himself. His first tee-shot landed on the bank and bounced back into the water. The very same thing had happened to him in 2014 too, when he was in the final pair with Bubba Watson. It got worse. Spieth took the penalty drop, and then mishit his wedge. This time the ball, which took a thick chunk of Augusta’s Bermuda grass with it, did not even clear the water. It sank way down to the bottom, along with his hopes and dreams.
So Spieth set himself again. And at the third time of asking, he finally made it across – into a bunker. He splashed out to three feet and putted for a quadruple bogey. Spieth is only 22 and, though he will play that hole many, many times again in the future, he will surely never make a worse job of it. It was the first time he had ever made anything worse than a double bogey in a major since he turned professional.
Spieth’s play this week had not been as masterful as it was when he won here last year. His driving has been far less accurate. But it had been characterised by his remarkable ability to play himself out of trouble, to bounce back from his bogeys. Now, hard as he tried, and he made two more birdies on the 13th and 15th, Spieth finally found himself in a mess even he could not clean up.
He finished in 70, three shots back. They always say that no one is champion until he has made it around Amen Corner. Now Spieth knows why.
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