AUGUSTA, Ga. – The shot was struck on Tuesday, not Sunday.
And it was a round for fun, not score.
Jordan Spieth has maintained that he’s not haunted by what happened on the 12th hole at last year’s Masters. That he won’t be defined by the most shocking collapse in tournament history. He tried to prove it yet again Tuesday during a practice round at Augusta National, stuffing his tee shot to a foot – so close he could do one of those hunched, Arnold Palmer-style tap-ins.
Spieth turned to the patrons, crammed into the grandstand behind the tee, and smirked: “I really could have used that one about 12 months ago.”
Since then, Spieth has been asked incessantly about his travails on the 12th hole, and he has gone through the classic stages of grief. First he shrugged off the meltdown, said that he got over it quickly. Then he became frustrated, tired of the constant questioning and the perception that 2016 was a down year. And finally, he accepted it, chalked up the attention to the 24/7 sports-media culture, and became more guarded in what he offered during his weekly sessions with the press.
Now, two days before the start of the 81st Masters, he just wants to stop talking about it.
“You add them up after 72 [holes],” Spieth said through gritted teeth. “I look forward to getting out there, taking it right over the bunker, just like I can tell you my strategy for any other hole.”
Spieth tried to set the tone early this year. At the SBS Tournament of Champions in Hawaii, Spieth was asked an innocuous question at a pre-tournament news conference. It was Jan. 4.
“Do you find yourself daydreaming about Augusta already?”
Spieth could have answered this question any number of ways – but he decided to do so anecdotally. In vivid detail he recalled the two rounds he played at Augusta National in December, the first time he’d been back to the club since he blew a five-shot lead on the back nine.
When the group arrived on the tee of the par-3 12th, Spieth was quick to break the ice with his playing partners.
“We have some demons to get rid of here,” he said.
Then he pured an 8-iron to 15 feet. Birdie.
He theatrically pumped his fist and declared, “Demons gone.” He made 2 the next day, too.
By sharing that story, the implication was obvious:
See, I’m over it, guys. No need to talk about it anymore.
If only it were that simple.
The Masters is the biggest golf tournament of the year. It’s the only one with eight months of anticipation. It’s the only one that dominates the sports calendar and draws in casual viewers. And unfortunately for him, How Spieth Recovers is the top storyline.
That much has been reinforced over the past few weeks, as TV networks, websites and magazines revisited the scene in agonizing detail. It’s clear that Spieth has grown tired of rehashing the past, and understandably so. “It will be nice once this year is finished from my point of view, to be brutally honest,” he said recently. But that, again, was wishful thinking.
“It’ll be something he has to prove to himself,” said two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw. “We’ve all had our catastrophes around here, but that happened at a bad time, and it was self-inflicted. But you make mistakes like that if you’re a golfer. You learn from it.”
Spieth and those close to him insist that it was merely one bad swing at a bad time, and that it was a minor miracle he was even in position to win back-to-back Masters, given his fatigue from offseason globetrotting and the shaky state of his ball-striking.
“That’s my takeaway,” said Spieth’s caddie, Michael Greller. “You have your C-game, but his short game, mentally, he was tough that week. No. 12 is what it is, but what he did the last six holes shows his stubbornness and his will.”
Those attributes should serve him well this week, with all eyes on the 23-year-old as he returns to the Masters – and to the 12th tee for the first time in competition.
“It will be difficult for him to put that out of his mind,” Colin Montgomerie said. “He says he has played the 12th hole in practice and he has come back and birdied it on every occasion. Yeah, but wait until he gets a card and pen in his hand again and see what you do on No. 12.”
There’s reason to believe this time will be different. Unlike last year, when he cracked the face of his driver and struggled with the weak right shot, Spieth has been sharp, especially with his irons, ranking first in strokes gained-approaches.
He began the year with three consecutive top-10s before a dominant victory at Pebble Beach. Since then, however, he hasn’t finished better than 12th in his last four starts, including a surprising missed cut last week in Houston, where he shot a second-round 77.
Spieth chalked it up to a rare off day. Nick Faldo believed it was something deeper.
“That’s why he hasn’t played well this past month, maybe winding himself up a little over it,” Faldo said. “All this attention.”
After missing the cut in Houston, Spieth also made an uncharacteristically brash statement – that “we strike fear” into others at Augusta. That turned some heads, since he is not physically intimidating, or with power and length. But he did have a point: His record here is 2-1-2.
“It’s the best course of the year for him,” Greller said, “and last year doesn’t change that.”
No, but there is scar tissue now that didn’t exist before, and Spieth will continue to be dogged by the memory of last year’s final round until he wins another green jacket.
“He’s got to go down there and deal with it,” Faldo said. “That’s the hardest thing in golf or any sport is when you don’t have an opportunity to come back and deal with it again. You don’t have another chance to square it up again.”
Spieth gets another chance Thursday, when his score on 12 actually begins to count.