Spieth (74) resilient, maintains lead at halfway point


AUGUSTA, Ga. – Marching toward the scoring building, flanked by a pair of security guards, Jordan Spieth’s face was bright red. It was from windburn, presumably, and not the five hours and 35 minutes of frustration.

The four-putt.

The botched chip that rolled down the slope.

The rushed shots around Amen Corner while on the clock.

“That was tough,” Spieth on Friday night, but even after his worst-ever score at Augusta National, a 2-over 74, even after the four-putt and the botched chip and the rushed shots, he still will take a one-shot lead into the weekend at the 80th Masters.

Through two days here, it’s painfully obvious that this is nothing like last year’s tournament. Spieth won’t blow away the field. He won’t pour in every 25-footer. And no, most importantly, the coronation won’t begin on the front nine Saturday.  

Spieth still holds the lead for the sixth consecutive round at the Masters, but never has he been more under duress at a place that, for the better part of three years, has looked like his personal playground.

Five shots clear at one point Friday, Spieth is now, at 4-under 140, only one stroke ahead of Rory McIlroy. Eleven players are within four shots.

With the wind gusting to 25 mph through the Georgia pines, Spieth, flawless through 22 holes, made four bogeys and a double. He needed a 14-footer for par on the final green just to preserve a one-shot cushion heading into Saturday’s third round, when conditions are expected to be even more difficult.

“That’s going to be the biggest advantage for us,” he said, “is to go out tomorrow, pretend it’s a new golf tournament and try and beat the field from here on in.”

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Midway through the second round, you wouldn’t have blamed the tournament committee for trying to relocate Spieth’s size-42 green jacket. After a “dream start,” with birdies on Nos. 1 and 3, he was five shots ahead of the field.

But Spieth wasn’t immune from the trouble, not on this day. The wind switched on his second shot into the par-4 fifth – it was supposed to be downwind, off the right – and his ball came up well short of the flag. He four-putted from 47 feet, missing three times inside 7 feet. Short of the ninth green, he made another mistake with his chip, walking off with bogey.

By then, the wind was howling, requiring his full attention on every 2-footer, and his patience was being tested, too, with good shots turning out poorly and bad shots getting severely punished.

“It was very tough to stay cool,” he said. “It’s a lot easier said than done. You could say, ‘Looked like you got emotional out there.’ But I mean, you guys try it. That was a hard golf course.”

Spieth’s frustration boiled over on the 11th hole, when he was told that his group was on the clock after falling out of position. After flaring his approach out to the right, leaving a 70-foot birdie putt across the green, Spieth complained to Greller: “I’m being freakin’ timed. I want to take my time, wait out the gust. But we can’t.”

Spieth said later that his annoyance stemmed from not receiving a warning earlier that his group was out of position.

“Have fun getting put on the clock at 11 of Augusta,” he said, “and then play 11 and 12 rushing with gusting winds. It’s not fun. It’s not fun at all.”

Spieth held it together through Amen Corner, and he even pushed his lead back to three shots with a two-putt birdie on 15. He immediately followed that with a three-putt on 16 and another dropped shot on 17.

When Spieth flailed his approach into the greenside bunker on the finishing hole, leaving a devilish shot with little green to work with, he appeared on the verge of dropping into a share of the halfway lead with McIlroy. Then Spieth, as he’s already done so many times here, canned the par putt to stay one shot ahead, tying Arnold Palmer as the only players to hold at least a share of the lead for six consecutive rounds at Augusta.

“It makes me smile walking off the green,” he said of the par save, “versus wondering how you just went bogey-bogey-bogey. That’s definitely a difference-maker there.”

And so now we’re left with a Masters Tournament that has morphed into a U.S. Open - unforgiving and unpredictable.

A year ago, Spieth won majors with both birdies (Augusta) and pars (Chambers Bay), and he says that his skill set lends itself better to brutish tests than birdie barrages. In the scoring building afterward, he compared the feeling of last year’s Masters, when he’d breezed to a four-shot lead at the halfway point, to this year’s edition.

“I like this better,” he said. “I didn’t like the fact that if I were to go out and play a decent round but shoot even par, because stuff doesn’t go in, guys could take the lead. Now, if I strike the ball the way I want to strike it and kind of map my way around the course the way we do so well here, you don’t need to force anything.”

Even if the storyline is Jordan vs. Rory, expect a weekend that is more slugfest than shootout.  

The second-round scoring average was a shade above 75. The best round was 71. Greens that received 4-iron shots early in the afternoon sent wedge shots bounding over the back by the end of the day.

“This has now gone very much to a U.S. Open style of play,” Spieth said, “but with more difficult greens.”

And so another brutal day awaits.