AUGUSTA, Ga. – Jordan Spieth’s 8-footer for par at the 72nd hole had just slipped past the hole. As he glanced over his shoulder to climb the hill to Augusta National’s clubhouse his eyes widened.
The player who famously avoids leaderboard gawking was getting his first glance, his first look all day, at that iconic board adjacent to the 18th hole.
“The first time I saw the leaderboard was after I tapped in on 18. Honest to God,” stressed Spieth, whose closing 64 tied for the lowest final round in Masters history. “I could have been in the lead by two and I could have been down four. And neither one would have surprised me. I didn't look once today.”
He missed an epic show.
In Spieth’s defense, he did start the final round at the Masters a full nine shots behind Patrick Reed and correctly figured that even if he was able to conjure some magic around the old plant nursery there was a murderer’s row of would-be champions he’d have to leapfrog on his way to his second green jacket.
“With eight people ahead of me starting the day, to get that much help and shoot a fantastic round was nearly impossible,” Spieth shrugged. “But I almost pulled off the impossible. I had no idea.”
Between Spieth and Rickie Fowler – who set out on Sunday in slightly better position, just five strokes off the pace – they produced an impossibly memorable final round that, with a monsoon of respect to eventual champion Reed, would otherwise have gone down as one of the tournament’s more uneventful finishes.
Reed won with a gritty closing round of 71, but this Masters will be remembered as a frenzied buzzer beater for the American thanks to Spieth and Reed providing an intoxicating mix of inspiration and intrigue.
It’s the secret sauce that makes the Masters different from other majors. Identify the week’s best – sure, all the majors accomplish that to varying degrees – but the magic is to bring together the game’s best, add a dash of hole locations that encourage aggressive play with electrifying results and finish it off with a steady diet of mounting pressure.
Spieth got things started with five birdies through his first nine holes before vanquishing some demons at the 12th hole, where he’s lost at least two Masters already in his young career, with a 22-footer for birdie to move to 14 under and within two shots of Reed.
Not that Spieth had any idea where he stood.
“To play a disciplined shot, probably the most pressure-packed shot I've ever hit [at No. 12], the Sunday pin at Augusta and I know what I've done, and my history there, to stand in that kind of pressure and hit the shot to the safe zone, to knock that putt in was massive,” Spieth said.
He would convert back-to-back birdies at Nos. 12 and 13 and again at Nos. 15 and 16, the latter to tie for the lead at 14 under and send a low, distinctive roar across the property and all the way to the 11th tee, where Reed was about to hit a wayward drive that would add more intrigue to the proceedings.
Compared with Spieth, Fowler’s heroics were more of the traditional variety after playing the opening loop in 1 under par. The man many consider the best player without a major rolled in 9-footers at 12 and 13 and a 49-foot winding Hail Mary at the 15th hole to move to within two strokes of the lead.
The theater built to a predictable crescendo, with Fowler hitting his approach to 7 feet at the final hole just as Reed stepped to the 18th tee 465 yards back down the hill. From center stage with the world and Reed watching, Fowler calmly rolled in the type of birdie putt that wins major championships.
Unlike Spieth, Fowler didn’t need to glance back up at the leaderboard to check his status. His birdie at the last left him at 14 under, one stroke back and officially on hold while Reed decided the outcome.
“I didn't look at the scoreboards a whole lot today, but I wanted to kind of check in and see where things were at around the turn,” said Fowler, who closed with a 67 to complete a 12-under-par weekend surge. “I saw Jordan was off and running today. To see that was kind of a kick in the butt.”
The assorted charges and cheers that echoed through the pines also served to put Reed on notice. Poised to become the first player to post all four rounds in the 60s after the first three days, the would-be champion struggled early.
Reed bogeyed the first and sixth holes to turn in even par and pushed his drive into the trees right of the 11th fairway on his way to bogey. His lead, which was three shots over Rory McIlroy to begin the day, had been trimmed to a single stroke.
“I knew someone else was going to go post a number early. Did I think they were going to post that type of number [Spieth’s 64]? No,” said Reed, who would birdie the 15th hole and play the rest of his round in even par for a one-stroke victory over Fowler.
“But just to see kind of how he was playing and see every time I looked at a board, they always threw up a number and it seemed to always get closer and closer to me; it was kind of nerve wracking. I was kind of glad he ran out of holes.”
After one of the most memorable finishes in Masters history, he may have been the only one who wanted this magical day to end.