AUGUSTA, Ga. – Earlier this week, Jordan Spieth was striding under the grand oak tree behind the Augusta National clubhouse when he paused briefly to talk with a group of reporters.
After a brief exchange, he smiled wily and turned toward the clubhouse, “I’ve got to head up to this [Champion’s] locker room.”
Like many things Jordan, it was a subtle. A subtle reminder of what he’s accomplished at Augusta National in an alarmingly short period of time, and an even more veiled indication of how far he’s come over the last fortnight. Or maybe it was just another sign of how the right turn off Washington Road onto Magnolia Lane can change a player like Spieth.
Either way, the confidence – quiet, cool, controlled, as always – was impossible to ignore.
Less than 48 hours later, Spieth found himself bounding up the same stairs to that hallowed room, this time with a scorecard to match the spring in his step. That’s what happens when you put on a ball-striking clinic on your way to an increasingly familiar place.
“This tournament often feels like there's six rounds with how the weekend grinds. I feel like I'm kind of one round down out of six, so I'm not getting ahead of myself,” said Spieth, who shot 6-under 66 and finds himself atop the leaderboard after a round at Augusta National for the ninth time (out of 17) in his career. “It's just – it was a really good start.”
Considering his play on Day 1, Spieth’s take may be a tad south of modest, but then his humility has become as much a part of the Masters in recent years as blooming azaleas and pimento cheese sandwiches.
Simply put, his play was inspired and turned what was starting to look like the biggest bust since “A Wrinkle in Time” into the potential blockbuster the sports world so eagerly anticipated.
The 2018 Masters was billed as an instant classic in waiting, with the likes of Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and Justin Rose all playing well. But as a cold morning wore into a perfect spring day the leaderboard told a different story.
For much of the day, the rotating cast of front-runners included Adam Hadwin, Haotong Li and even 55-year-old Vijay Singh, all compelling and accomplished players, just not what the script had suggested for what was widely being called the most-anticipated Masters in recent memory.
That all changed in a late-afternoon flurry, with McIlroy playing his last 11 holes in 3 under par to move into a share of fourth place, and Mickelson rebounding with three birdies over his last six holes for a share of 11th place.
But it was Spieth who forcefully assumed the role of star standard-bearer. He eagled the eighth hole after a relatively nondescript start and ripped off five straight birdies, starting at the 13th hole, to ignite Augusta National’s second nine.
It was vintage Spieth, with the 24-year-old converting clutch putts and stalking around Augusta National like Bobby Jones built the place just for him.
We’ve seen this before, back in 2015 when he lapped the field by four strokes to put his first green jacket in the closet. We even saw it the next year, when he looked well on his way to jacket No. 2, before a late implosion.
It’s all part of Jordan’s Masters mystique.
“I'll always have demons out here, but I'll always have a tremendous amount of confidence out here,” Spieth reasoned. “Once you win here, you have an advantage over anybody who hasn't won here. There can be positives and negatives to both the demons and the confidence.”
But then he’s produced on the biggest stages regularly in his career, just not this year.
Before last week’s Houston Open he’d posted just a single top-10 finish on the PGA Tour in 2018, a tie for ninth at the Genesis Open in February, and was fresh off a missed cut and an early exit from last month’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play.
There were the predictable questions about his putting and even doubts he’d be among the favorites when the year’s first major started. But it turns out the external noise was tame compared to what was going on inside Spieth’s busy mind.
On Tuesday, he conceded that there was a sense of panic about his game as the Masters approached.
That began to change the week of the Match Play and he appeared to turn a corner in Houston, where he began the final round tied for 13th but charged with a closing 66 to finish tied for third place.
“I made big strides in the last two weeks to get from kind of a panic place to a very calm, collected and confident place,” he said. “It's difficult to do in two weeks. Sometimes it takes years. I feel like I've been able to speed that process up a lot over the last couple weeks.”
Sometimes it takes nothing more than a few putts to drop and a return to a place that means the world to you.
We’ve seen turnarounds like this before. Just three weeks ago, in fact, when McIlroy ended a Tour winless drought that had drifted on for more than a year, with his commanding victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
It’s what world-class players do. It’s what makes them different from all the others. It’s the relaxed confidence to know that something special awaits around the next corner, particularly when you’re Jordan Spieth and that corner leads you down Magnolia Lane.