Spieth's gutsy shot flopped, but he didn't

By Joe PosnanskiApril 12, 2015, 2:01 am

AUGUSTA, Ga. – On the 18th hole Saturday, as the sun set over the Masters, Jordan Spieth hit a full-swing flop shot off an iffy downhill lie over a bunker and to a downhill hole location. For the layman, this is roughly like parallel parking a Buick into your refrigerator.

If he had hit this shot at any other point in his life, it would been ridiculously risky. But Spieth hit this knee-buckling absurdity on the third day of the Masters, shortly after double-bogeying the previous hole and after having seen his once cavernous lead at the Masters dwindle to an uncomfortable four shots. This leaves only two possibilities.

One is that Jordan Spieth is a golfing genius and the gutsiest young player we’ve seen around these parts in a long, long time.

The other is that Jordan Spieth is just a little bit crazy.

“I don’t recommend ever hitting it there,” Spieth said afterward, speaking of the impossible position he had put himself next to the 18th green. Spieth said that until almost the very last second he planned to do what any mere mortal would do – bump the ball down toward the flag, watch the ball roll to 15 or 20 feet by and just hope to make a long putt. That’s what his caddie, Michael Greller, wanted him to do. That’s what any caddie would want.

But at the last second, Spieth decided to hit the full flop, a shot that buckles the knees of every player of every skill level around the world, a shot that even Spieth conceded he’d only pull off one out of every five times. And that flop shot came out just right, it rolled to within 9 feet of the cup, and he made the par putt to maintain that four-shot lead going into the final day at the Masters. Four shots is the largest lead a player has had going into the final round at the Masters since Rory McIlroy in 2011. More on that in a minute.

First, a few words on that absurd shot.

“If you caught me a year and a half ago,” Spieth says, “I probably would never have played that shot in that scenario. … That just took some guts. And having been in this scenario, in contention enough, I felt comfortable enough playing that full flop.”

Round 4 pairings, tee times

He’s different, that’s for sure. Until the final two holes Saturday, Jordan Spieth gave every indication that winning the Masters was going to be more or less the easiest thing he had done in a while. On a crazy Saturday filled with all sorts of explosions – four-time Masters champion Tiger Woods went on a pine-rattling birdie binge, world No. 1 Rory McIlroy ignited cheers all over the course, three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson tore up the golf course he loves – Spieth seemed in complete control of his game and his emotions. Even his slight bobbles, like unlikely three-putts he had at Nos. 4 and 14 – were quickly followed with brilliant shots. After he drained a 14-foot putt on the 16th hole, he was at 18 under par, making him only the second player to breathe in that rarified air at Augusta. His lead was a staggering seven shots.

Then came the 17th hole when, for the first time all week, Spieth sort of lost himself in the fog. He pulled out the driver though a 3-wood would have been the more prudent choice and pulled his drive left into the trees. He then miscalculated his second shot and found himself facing a whole mess of technical problems – ball was on the downslope, it was into the grain, facing a false front, stuff like that.

“When I got up there and saw it,” he would say, “no part of me liked it.”

His pitch barely made it onto the green; it stopped some 56 feet away from the hole. He three-putted from there. It was the sort of misadventure that can break a player’s confidence.

On top of that, he soon heard a huge cheer. That was for 2013 U.S. Open champion Justin Rose, who made a tricky downhill birdie putt at No. 18 to finish off a great back nine. That birdie put Rose at 12 under, four shots back. Mickelson was just five shots back. This tournament was suddenly getting a bit too interesting.

Then at 18, Spieth hit his second shot to just about the worst place around that green. Immediately, everyone expected that Spieth’s lead would be just three or even two at the end of the day. Then he hit that amazing flop shot and left everyone awed again.

A four-shot lead at Augusta is not insurmountable. Golf fans all remember Greg Norman blowing a six-shot lead to Nick Faldo at the 1996 Masters. But you don’t have to go back that far. Rory McIlroy was a whole lot like Jordan Spieth in 2011. He was 21 like Spieth, he seemed impossibly poised for his age like Spieth, he had dominated the whole tournament like Spieth. He was also four shots in front. And he utterly collapsed on the back nine Sunday, shooting 43 and finishing way back in 15th place.

But McIlroy – who is tied for fifth place at this Masters, 10 shots back – thinks Spieth is in a different place because Spieth has gone through some of this pressure already. He was tied for the lead going into Sunday at the Masters last year.

“I think the good thing for him is he’s already experienced it once,” McIlroy says. “He’s played in the final group of the Masters before. It didn’t quite happen for him last year, but I think he’ll have learned from that experience. I think all that put together, he’ll definitely handle it a lot better than I did.”

But with just a four-shot lead, Spieth doesn’t have to fall apart to lose. Someone could go get him. Greg Norman had a four-shot lead over Jack Nicklaus in 1986 and he shot a very solid 70. Nicklaus shot 65 and won. And Spieth is being chased by some pretty good players. Rose has won 17 tournaments around the world and he loves this place; he has shot 68 or better six times, including twice at this tournament.

And speaking of people who love this place, there’s Mickelson who just comes alive here. He has had one top-10 finish in the last two years or so, but Augusta brings out something in him. He shot 67 on Saturday and has closed out with brilliant rounds before.

Even Woods and McIlroy figure to play a role. They may be 10 shots back, but they play together two groups in front of Spieth and they will undoubtedly have a huge gallery following them and making a lot of noise. Also, Woods, McIlroy and Mickelson all know they have to go for birdies, and that makes them particularly dangerous.

“I’ve got to shoot a super low one,” Woods says. “But at least I’ve given myself a chance going into tomorrow.”

“If I was to go out and shoot 30 [on the front nine], yeah, who knows?” McIlroy says. “Look, I’m going to need something basically around 61, 62 to have a chance. I’m not sure that’s going to happen, but we’ll see.”

“If I can start posting some birdies,” says Mickelson who will be one group in front of Spieth and Rose, “I think it’s much more difficult to follow than it is to lead.”

Spieth responds to all this with the same calm maturity with which he responds to everything. He talks about how he will try to stay patient. He talks about how he hopes to have learned some things from last year’s second-place finish to Bubba Watson. He talks about how he expects to hear many roars from the galleries. “Especially in the group in front of us – everyone loves Phil,” Spieth says. “Why wouldn’t you love Phil?”

But in the end, Spieth knows that it won’t come to those cheers or what scores other players put up or pregame talk. It will come down to how he plays. It will come down to making some pressure putts. It will come down to hitting the smart shots and not letting his emotions persuade him to be too aggressive or too meek. He has a four-shot lead, which is not overwhelming, but it is substantial. As Tiger Woods says: “It’s Jordan’s tournament to win.”

Now, Spieth actually has to go out and win it. And, like with that remarkable flop shot at No. 18, there are only two possibilities.

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Cut Line: Color Rory unafraid of the Ryder Cup

By Rex HoggardJanuary 19, 2018, 7:09 pm

In this week’s edition, Rory McIlroy gets things rolling with some early Ryder Cup banter, Dustin Johnson changes his tune on a possible golf ball roll-back, and the PGA Tour rolls ahead with integrity training.

Made Cut

Paris or bust. Rory McIlroy, who made his 2018 debut this week on the European Tour, can be one of the game’s most affable athletes. He can also be pointed, particularly when discussing the Ryder Cup.

Asked this week in Abu Dhabi about the U.S. team, which won the last Ryder Cup and appears to be rejuvenated by a collection of new players, McIlroy didn’t disappoint.

“If you look at Hazeltine and how they set the course up – big, wide fairways, no rough, pins in the middle of greens – it wasn’t set up for the way the Europeans like to play,” McIlroy said. “I think Paris will be a completely different kettle of fish, so different.”

McIlroy has come by his confidence honestly, having won three of the four Ryder Cups he’s played, so it’s understandable if he doesn't feel like an underdog heaidng to Paris.

“The Americans have obviously been buoyant about their chances, but it’s never as easy as that,” he said. “The Ryder Cup is always close. It always comes down to a few key moments, and it will be no different in Paris. I think we’ll have a great team and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.”

September can’t get here quick enough.

Mr. Spieth goes to Ponte Vedra Beach. The Tour announced this year’s player advisory council, the 16-member group that works with the circuit’s policy board to govern.

There were no real surprises to the PAC, but news that Jordan Spieth had been selected to run for council chair is interesting. Spieth, who is running against Billy Hurley III and would ascend to the policy board next year if he wins the election, served on the PAC last year and would make a fine addition to the policy board, but it is somewhat out of character for a marquee player.

In recent years, top players like Spieth have largely avoided the distractions that come with the PAC and policy board. Of course, we’ve also learned in recent years that Spieth is not your typical superstar.

Made Cut-Did Not Finish (MDF)

On second thought. In December at the Hero World Challenge, Dustin Johnson was asked about a possible golf ball roll-back, which has become an increasingly popular notion in recent years.

“I don't mind seeing every other professional sport. They play with one ball. All the pros play with the same ball,” he said in the Bahamas. “I think there should be some kind of an advantage for guys who work on hitting it far and getting that speed that's needed, so having a ball, like the same ball that everyone plays, there's going to be, you're going to have more of an advantage.”

The world No. 1 appeared to dial back that take this week in Abu Dhabi, telling BBC Sport, “It's not like we are dominating golf courses. When was the last time you saw someone make the game too easy?”

Maybe it didn’t feel that way, but DJ’s eight-stroke romp two weeks ago at the Sentry Tournament of Champions certainly looked pretty easy.

Long odds. I had a chance to watch the Tour’s 15-minute integrity training video that players have been required view and came away with a mixture of confusion and concern.

The majority of the video, which includes a Q&A element, focuses on how to avoid match fixing. Although the circuit has made it clear there is no indication of current match fixing, it’s obviously something to keep an eye on.

The other element that’s worth pointing out is that although the Tour may be taking the new program seriously, some players are not.

“My agent watched [the training video] for me,” said one Tour pro last week at the Sony Open.

Missed Cut

Groundhog Day. To be fair, no one expected Patton Kizzire and James Hahn to need six playoff holes to decide last week’s Sony Open, but the episode does show why variety is the spice of life.

After finishing 72 holes tied at 17 under, Kizzire and Hahn played the 18th hole again and again and again and again. In total, the duo played the par-5 closing hole at Waialae Country Club five times (including in regulation play) on Sunday.

It’s worth noting that the playoff finally ended with Kizzire’s par at the sixth extra hole, which was the par-3 17th. Waialae’s 18th is a fine golf hole, but in this case familiarity really did breed contempt.

Tweet of the week:

It was a common theme last Saturday on Oahu after an island-wide text alert was issued warning of an inbound ballistic missile and advising citizens to “seek immediate shelter.”

The alert turned out to be a mistake, someone pushed the wrong button during a shift change, but for many, like Peterson, it was a serious lesson in perspective.

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Watch: McIlroy gives Fleetwood a birthday cake

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 19, 2018, 2:58 pm

Tommy Fleetwood turned 27 on Friday. He celebrated with some good golf – a 4-under 68 in Abu Dhabi, leaving him only two shots back in his title defense – and a birthday cake, courtesy of Rory Mcllroy.

While giving a post-round interview, Fleetwood was surprised to see McIlroy approaching with a cake in hand.

“I actually baked this before we teed off,” McIlroy joked.

Fleetwood blew out the three candles – “three wishes!” – and offered McIlroy a slice.  

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DJ shoots 64 to surge up leaderboard in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 1:48 pm

Dustin Johnson stood out among a star-studded three-ball that combined to shoot 18 under par with just one bogey Friday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Shaking off a sloppy first round at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, Johnson matched the low round of the day with a 64 that put him within four shots of Thomas Pieters’ lead.

“I did everything really well,” Johnson said. “It was a pretty easy 64.”

Johnson made four bogeys during an even-par 72 on Thursday and needed a solid round Friday to make the cut. Before long, he was closer to the lead than the cut line, making birdie on three of the last four holes and setting the pace in a group that also included good rounds from Rory McIlroy (66) and Tommy Fleetwood (68).

“Everyone was hitting good shots,” McIlroy said. “That’s all we were seeing, and it’s nice when you play in a group like that. You feed off one another.” 

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Coming off a blowout victory at Kapalua, Johnson is searching for his first regular European Tour title. He tied for second at this event a year ago.

Johnson’s second-round 64 equaled the low round of the day (Jorge Campillo and Branden Grace). 

“It was just really solid all day long,” Johnson said. “Hit a lot of great shots, had a lot of looks at birdies, which is what I need to do over the next two days if I want to have a chance to win on Sunday.” 

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Closing eagle moves Rory within 3 in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 12:57 pm

What rust? Rory McIlroy appears to be in midseason form.

Playing competitively for the first time since Oct. 8, McIlroy completed 36 holes without a bogey Friday, closing with an eagle to shoot 6-under 66 to sit just three shots back at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

“I’m right in the mix after two days and I’m really happy in that position,” he told reporters afterward.

McIlroy took a 3 ½-month break to heal his body, clear his mind and work on his game after his first winless year since 2008, his first full season as a pro.

He's back on track at a familiar playground, Abu Dhabi Golf Club, where he’s racked up eight top-11s (including six top-3s) in his past nine starts there.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy opened with a 69 Thursday, then gave himself even more chances on Day 2, cruising along at 4 under for the day when he reached the par-5 closing hole. After launching a 249-yard long iron to 25 feet, he poured in the eagle putt to pull within three shots of Thomas Pieters (65). 

Despite the layoff, McIlroy edged world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, coming off a blowout victory at Kapalua, by a shot over the first two rounds. 

“DJ is definitely the No. 1 player in the world right now, and one of, if not the best, driver of the golf ball," McIlroy said. "To be up there with him over these first two days, it proves to me that I’m doing the right things and gives me a lot of confidence going forward.”