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.”
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.