Early Monday morning in Augusta. On Washington Road, which runs out from downtown to the golf club, workmen are already packing away cones and pulling down signs. The police who spent the past week directing traffic are gone, so are the scalpers offering spare tickets and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who have quit their quiet roadside vigil.
Up at the club the grandstands are empty, and the only people out on the course are one or two members and the few lucky journalists who won the chance to play it in the annual ballot. Everything is settling in the quiet little city of Augusta. Among the golfers, many will already have moved on. Plenty will be getting ready for the RBC Heritage at Hilton Head this Thursday. For one or two what happened here last week will linger longer.
Danny Willett was out so late that his hangover had not even kicked in. As his manager, Chubby Chandler, said, whatever else happens, the win means Willett is now “set for life”.
Then there’s Jordan Spieth. “Big picture, this one will hurt,” Spieth said. “It will take a while.”
He barely held himself together through the post-event ceremonies. First he had to sit in the Butler Cabin while Willett, still incredulous, spoke to the Augusta chairman, Billy Payne, and CBS. Then Spieth had to slip the Green Jacket on to the Englishman’s back, once for the cameras, and then again in front of all Augusta’s members out on the 18th green. “I felt that I stood up there and smiled like I should,” Spieth said, “and appreciated everybody who makes this great tournament possible.”
Spieth boiled it all down to one bad shot, his already infamous second attempt at the par-three 12th green. He caught it thick. It flopped 50 yards, fell in Rae’s Creek. He had already made bogeys at the 10th and 11th, but it was the quadruple at the 12th that finished him. “It was really one swing: 10 and 11 you can take bogeys there; I was still two-under for the tournament with a couple of par-fives left. My goal for the day was four-under. So we were still right on pace.”
The mistake he made, he said, was not taking that one “extra deep breath”. He decided to hit “a little cut” to the hole. He had made the same decision in 2014, when he tied for second behind Bubba Watson. And as he said, “it cost me the tournament then, too”. The 12th, Spieth said, “for whatever reason just has people’s number”.
There is a reason why Jack Nicklaus once described the 12th as “the hardest tournament hole in golf”. Nicklaus made a double-bogey there in 1981 when he lost to Tom Watson. Spieth’s name is only one in a long list of victims. In 1959 Arnold Palmer was leading the field on Sunday until he hit his tee-shot into the water, and his second into the back bunker. He took a triple-bogey six and lost by two shots to Art Wall Jr. In 1962 Gary Player was top of the leaderboard till he made bogey at 12 and fell into a three-way tie, then came back for the play-off and made bogey all over again. In 1973, JC Snead made a double there on the Sunday and lost by a shot to Tommy Aaron.
Spieth’s collapse was all the more excruciating because of the way in which he had led the tournament through the first three days. His golf was not as strong as it had been in 2015. He said himself that tee to green he was only playing his B-minus game. But he kept control, just, through his dead‑eye putting, and his remarkable ability to bounce back from the bad holes by making a birdie at the next.
It is difficult to imagine how much it must have taken out of him, the suffocating pressure of staying ahead of the field over 63 holes when you are playing such wonky golf off the tee. There were moments when the strain showed. He had made three double bogeys even before he got to the 12th on Sunday. But he had always found a way to scramble back.
Some compared it to Greg Norman’s collapse in 1996, when he too had been in front for all three days but blew a six-shot lead on the Sunday. But as the man who beat him, Nick Faldo, has pointed out: “In 96 you got the sense that Greg was struggling, but it was bit by bit. What happened to Jordan it was so sudden, just bam. It was 10 minutes of golf. That’s the harshness of it.”
Faldo thinks it “will scar” the Texan, “damage him for a while”. And it is true that he will surely never be entirely at ease on that 12th tee ever again. But he is a tough man, and a quick student. And if he needs an example of how he can recover, he has one close at hand in his great rival Rory McIlroy.
In 2011 McIlroy took a four-shot lead into the final round of the Masters but shot 80 and finished tied for 15th. Two months later, the Northern Irishman won the US Open at Congressional by eight strokes. This year, the US Open will be at Oakmont, a ferociously tough course. Last time the Open was played there Ángel Cabrera won it with a score of five over par. If it plays that way again, it will suit Spieth just fine.
So on Monday morning, while Augusta was being tidied up, the bookies were busy figuring the odds for the tournament. They decided that Spieth will start as favourite.
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