AUGUSTA, Ga. – All was quiet on the Augusta National practice area Sunday afternoon, except for the occasional thwack of a golf ball meeting iron.
It was 2:25 p.m. The final tee time was fast approaching.
Three men in white jumpsuits swept balls off the putting green. A few others raked divots into a pile. A lone camera crew was positioned 10 yards away, their lens fixed on the only player still working. All of the other competitors had long ago departed, but about 100 fans remained in their plastic seats, watching silently.
The range on Masters Sunday is the last place to search for answers – and yet there was Jordan Spieth, 20 minutes before his tee time, working and grinding and trying to find a go-to shot to take to the course.
As range sessions go, this one was inauspicious. Spieth’s longtime swing coach, Cameron McCormick, had decided on his own to fly in from Dallas. The 22-year-old was leading the Masters for the seventh consecutive round, but his sloppy finish Saturday, when he dropped three shots on the last two holes, had shaken his confidence. Up by four at one point, he entered the final day only one clear of Smylie Kaufman, a Masters rookie, and 11 players, including Danny Willett, were within five.
Spieth, McCormick and caddie Michael Greller arrived more than three hours before the final tee time Sunday, their normal routine on major weekends with so much time to kill. But it was clear early on that something was awry, with Spieth grumbling about the plane of his swing and the crispness of his contact and the shots that drifted to the right.
At one point, McCormick lined up behind Spieth, bent over at the waist and put his hands on his knees, checking his alignment. With each poor strike, Spieth’s frustration mounted. After pushing one iron shot, he circled around McCormick and returned to his bag, rubbing his fingertips on his towel, hoping to slow down his mind.
In that quiet moment, Spieth couldn’t possibly have known what would unfold over the next three hours:
That he would find his swing.
That he would sprint five shots clear.
And that, improbably, he would suffer the worst collapse in Masters history.
In the span of 13 minutes, Spieth crashed from first place to fourth with a shocking meltdown on the sinister 12th hole. After leading outright for 58 holes, he finished three shots behind Willett.
“Big picture,” Spieth said afterward, “this one will hurt. It will take a while.”
That he even had a chance to win this 80th Masters was a testament to his grit and tenacity.
Spieth claimed that he walked to the first tee Sunday with confidence, but he played tentatively to start and needed a few fortuitous breaks to stay in front. When he finally started swinging with conviction, he ran off four birdies in a row, burying a 15-footer on 6, stuffing an approach on 7, making a stress-free birdie on 8 and rolling in a 21-foot sidewinder on 9.
"A dream-come-true front nine," he said.
Leading by five, it was over. Done. A size-42 jacket, same as last year …
Except Spieth fanned an approach into the greenside bunker on 10 and made bogey.
And then he sliced his drive into the right trees on 11 and missed an 8-footer for par.
And then, of course, he stepped to the tee on the par-3 12th, the most daunting hole in championship golf, and rinsed not one but two shots, including an 80-yard wedge that was chunked so badly that it barely reached Rae’s Creek. Spieth carded a quadruple-bogey 7 – a Normanesque collapse in two swings.
“It’s unfortunate what happened,” said Smylie Kaufman, who was paired with Spieth in the final group. “It just kind of stunk to watch it.”
Spieth led for a record seven consecutive rounds at Augusta, cracking the code here faster than a cryptographer. But for the second time in three years, he will be haunted by an uncommitted tee shot in the heart of Amen Corner.
“The swing,” he said, “just wasn’t quite there to produce the right ball flight.”
And, to be fair, it wasn’t there all week.
Even though he was on the verge of becoming the youngest three-time major winner since 1923, Spieth stewed Saturday evening when he met with the press. A half hour earlier, he made an unforced error on 17 and butchered the 18th to add an unexpected dose of drama to the toughest Masters in nearly a decade. From four shots ahead to one, it now was anyone’s game Sunday, and Spieth joked that he’d “go break something really quick” and be fine.
Instead, he received a text from McCormick, his coach for the past decade, who was back home in Dallas: Hey, would you like it if I came back? Spieth said sure, that it couldn’t hurt to have an extra set of eyes on his swing, but it seemed a curious decision, and a troubling sign, because he prides himself on being a self-fixer. Through three rounds, though, only six players had hit fewer fairways than Spieth (66 percent), and just four had found fewer than his 32 greens. With a “B-minus game tee to green,” he was relying on his strategy, wedge play and putter. Eventually, he cracked.
Three times this week Spieth forged at least a four-shot lead. All three times, he backed up to the field, gave hope to the hopeless, and on Sunday, it finally caught up with him.
After his implosion on 12, Spieth turned to Greller, hoping for a spark and some solace.
"Buddy," he said, "it seems like we’re collapsing."
Despite going nine holes without a par, Spieth rallied with birdies on both back-nine par 5s to stay alive. He arrived on the 16th tee needing two more birdies for a playoff with Willett, who was already in the clubhouse at 5-under 283 after a flawless 67.
Spieth flagged his tee shot on 16 to stir the crowd, but his 8-footer never had a chance. Another errant approach on 17 led to a bogey, dooming Spieth to a tie for second and touching off Willett’s celebration inside Butler Cabin.
“There’s no give up in us,” Spieth said. “We tried, but it just was one bad swing.”
On the last hole, he crouched near the edge of the fairway, hung his head and replayed how it had slipped away, how he had come home in 41. Approaching the green, he received a standing ovation, but it looked, sounded and felt nothing like last year, nothing at all.
Neither did the green jacket ceremony.
With his hands stuffed in his pockets, he staggered over to the putting green for the presentation. In a cruel twist of fate, it was Spieth, the defending champion, who slipped the blazer onto Willett’s shoulders. He even smoothed out the winner's collar.
“I can’t think of anybody else who may have had a tougher ceremony to experience,” he said.
Spieth's team took the loss particularly hard. McCormick, Greller and Spieth’s father, Shawn, gathered on the perfectly manicured lawn outside the clubhouse for a group hug, but they were in no mood to talk afterward.
Spieth gracefully answered questions, shook hands with a few members and rushed upstairs to the Champions Locker Room to collect his belongings. Before departing in a silver Mercedes SUV, he cracked, with a hint of sarcasm: “They just told me I can’t take my green jacket with me.”
No, stunningly, on this day a different champion was fitted.