AUGUSTA, Ga. – It’s not supposed to be like this.
The Masters is the feel-good story to the drama that is the U.S. Open and the intrigue of the Open Championship.
Fans flock to Augusta National to rattle the pines with cheers, not recoil from one pile-up after another. But then, it was always going to be like this.
After Jordan Spieth ran the table in 2015 with an 18-under total that matched the tournament record, the seeds of spite were planted early and often heading into this year’s tournament.
On Tuesday players talked of greens with Sunday speeds, and the only sound that could be heard on Thursday was the hum of the Sub-Air system draining the putting surfaces of much-needed moisture.
We want birdies and eagles and heroic charges, but what we have been given is pars and bogeys and harried moments.
Even the man who would be king, Spieth, felt the cold sting of the tougher side of Augusta National this week. After cruising through a first-round 66 the world No. 2 has posted cards of 74-73 to set an intriguing Sunday stage.
After opening his Masters career with nine consecutive at- or under-par rounds, Spieth has spent the last two blustery days trying to keep things together.
“I think it will be tough to put it behind me,” Spieth admitted. “I think I will, but that wasn't a fun last couple holes to play from the position I was in. I'm not going to dodge the question by any means. It's not going to be fun tonight for a little while, and hopefully I just sleep it off and it's fine tomorrow.”
It could have been a much different scenario.
With his second birdie of the day at No. 8, Spieth extended his lead to three strokes and appeared headed for another Sunday celebration like the one he enjoyed last year when he began the final round four strokes clear of the pack.
But things began to go sideways when he three-putted the 11th hole for double bogey, and he compounded the problem with a pair of wayward drives at Nos. 17 and 18 to finish bogey, double bogey for a 3-under total and a one-stroke lead.
Sunday will not be a “walk in the Georgia pines,” as Tom Watson waxed on Friday following his last Masters round, not with six players within three strokes and a Spieth game that is something less than 100 percent.
Unlike last year, Spieth won’t be able to play a prevent defense on Sunday, and that reality was etched into his face following a windswept day.
“With very little wind tomorrow, someone gets on a run and shoots 6, 7 under, I know I have to shoot a significant under-par round in order to win this tournament, when I could have played a different style of golf like I did on Sunday last year,” Spieth said.
Spieth could take some solace in the final act of this year’s Masters in his company atop a crowded leaderboard, if not the margin of his advantage.
PGA Tour rookie Smylie Kaufman is a stroke back and will be playing for the first time from the final pairing on Sunday after a round-best 69.
As unsteady as Spieth looked coming down the stretch in Round 3, Kaufman, with birdies at Nos. 13, 14 and 16, was the lone highlight from a day that offered few reasons to cheer.
Still, the 24-year-old acknowledged that heading out in the last two-ball with Spieth brings an entirely new set of challenges.
“He's probably 1000-0,” Kaufman said when asked his record against Spieth when the two played junior and amateur golf. “He's always beating me. Granted, he was so much better than I was as a junior and amateur. I was kind of a late bloomer in that regard.”
Although Kaufman rallied for his lone Tour victory earlier this season with a final-round 61, most will be looking to the likes of players named Matsuyama, Day, Johnson and Langer to push Spieth.
That’s right, Langer.
On Wednesday Gary Player was asked if he thought Jack Nicklaus’ record of being the oldest player to win the Masters at 46 would ever be broken and the Black Knight didn’t hold back.
“I've always said that a man at 50 would win the Masters and I was ridiculed,” Player railed. “Raymond Floyd needed to birdie No. 17 with a 9-iron, and he would have won the Masters at 49, nearly 50. Don't forget, Julius Boros won the PGA at 48. People forget about these things.”
On the 30th anniversary of Nicklaus’ historic victory in 1986, certainly no one would forget it if the 58-year-old German shattered a mark many still believe is unbreakable.
“If I play my best, I can shoot 4 or 5 under tomorrow, if the conditions are a little bit better,” Langer said. “But so can Jordan Spieth or any of the others on the leaderboard, so it all depends how the rest of the other 15 guys do. I can only play my game and see how that holds up.”
Of course, there is still a chance the stars align in the desired position and Spieth is challenged by those he is most often associated with, most notably Rory McIlroy and Jason Day. Until now it had been nothing more than water-cooler talk – theoretical debates with no right answer.
To be fair, McIlroy didn’t have his best stuff on a swirling Saturday, but on Day 3 at the Masters the metaphysical was given a healthy dollop of the material.
The esoteric debate over who, if both players are at their best, would prevail in a duel between Spieth and McIlroy – power vs. pure putting – now has a quantifiable data point.
Spieth clipped McIlroy, who struggled to find fairways and failed to make a single birdie, by four strokes after the Northern Irishman ballooned to a 77. That outcome, of course, means nothing in the big picture, Spieth will tell you as much.
Whatever confidence Spieth may have drawn from clipping McIlroy, who is five strokes off the lead, was quickly dismissed with a quick glance at a leaderboard as backed up as Sunday traffic on Washington Road.
Unlike last year’s romp to his first green jacket, Spieth will face a much more demanding and different test on this Sunday, both on the course and the leaderboard.