It was the 66 that was the illusion -- that and the four consecutive birdies to close the front nine on Sunday. But those 22 holes are what made us believe that Jordan Spieth was headed into Butler Cabin for another Green Jacket Ceremony to close out the 80th Masters as back-to-back champion.
Surely the steely-nerved, iron-willed, icy-veined two-time major winner had found the alchemical formula on the driving range that morning with his teacher Cameron McCormick – who voluntarily flew in from Texas for an emergency session – and was going to turn the back nine at Augusta on Sunday into a victory lap. The old Jordan was back and coming off four birdies in a row. A five-shot lead was enough for him to steer around the watery back nine on cruise control, wasn’t it?
Unless your name was Tiger Woods or Jack Nicklaus, nobody does that to Augusta National.
Everyone was fooled, even Spieth, and he admitted it in his post-round interview. He tried to play defensive golf on the back nine at Augusta. Kids these days. What part of “The Masters begins on the back nine on Sunday” don’t they understand?
“I knew par was good enough and maybe that was what hurt me,” Spieth recalled somberly. “I just wasn't quite aggressive at the ball with my 3‑wood, my 6‑iron on 10 and then the drive on 11. Just a lapse of concentration on 12 and it cost me.”
An eight-shot swing in less than 30 minutes: It’s that razor’s edge that makes the drama of the Masters so incomparable. You can’t ease down on the throttle on the back nine, but there’s nothing but catastrophes waiting from 10-16. More often than not, pars lose ground on the par 5s, so you have to stick your head in the lion’s mouth: You have to go out and win the Masters; you can’t try not to lose it.
It’s hard enough to win like that under ordinary circumstances, but when your swing is held together temporarily by popsicle sticks, duct tape and Elmer’s glue, it’s nigh impossible. We should have seen this coming, because even during his bogey-free 66 on Thursday, Jordan was all over Washington Avenue -- mostly right, the big miss at Augusta National. For the week, he and serendipitous champion Danny Willett of England were both T-26 in driving accuracy for the week – a solid 68 percent -- and they were second and third for the week in putting.
But Willett finished T-6 in the all-important greens in regulation, including a stellar 13/18 on Sunday when he shot a bogey-free 67 to slide into the green jacket Spieth dropped into Rae's Creek. Spieth, by contrast, was T-30 in greens in regulation for the week, a pedestrian 59 percent.
“I had my B‑minus game tee-to-green and I made up for it around the greens with my putter,” Spieth observed honestly. “Ultimately you just have to have your A-game every single part and I just didn't have those iron swings, as it showed on the back nine….I got conservative and put bad swings on it at the wrong time.”
There are also two other reasons why when your buddies at the water cooler ask you “Can you believe what happened to Spieth?” you can resoundingly shout “Yes, I can!”: 12 does this all the time and pretty much every great champion golfer has blown a big lead at a major at some point in their career.
The 12th at Augusta is where dreams and story ledes go to die and most every journalist in the house was on rewrite once Spieth started serving a second Masters dinner down there at about 5:05 p.m.
It was a strip steak, some chili dip and a fried egg, for those of you scoring at home.
The 12th hole is notorious for doing this. It’s perennially one of the toughest par 3s on the PGA Tour. The green is shallow, a mere eight paces at its narrowest, fronted by steep roll-offs into Rae’s Creek and guarded by the forest behind, it’s a severe test of distance control. Yes, it’s wide, but that’s an illusion. With bunkers at the 6 o’clock and 12 o’clock positions, it’s really three tiny greens in one. Even with a 9-iron in a player's hands, it’s a matter of microns between safety and catastrophe. You can’t win the Masters at 12, but you can lose it in the biggest way and the list of tombstones erected at Rae’s Creek adds Spieth’s name.
That list, however, is a pantheon of the game’s greatest names. With his dizzying collapse at the 80th Masters, Jordan Spieth joined a roster of the greatest names in golf history: Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson, Phil Mickelson, Seve Ballesteros, Rory McIlroy and Jack Nicklaus, to name just a few. They too lost a major championship they had in their back pocket. (If you play professional golf long enough at the elite level, you’re going to suffer the occasional lightning bolt from he Golf Gods. There are fickle, they are vengeful and they are indiscriminate.) But they also all rebounded, responding to the adversity by winning again soon afterwards.
In 1961, Arnold Palmer was one hole away from becoming a back-to-back champion. Suddenly, like Spieth, he morphed into your lunkhead Sunday golf buddy playing with rented clubs on a goat track. He bladed, shanked and scooped his way to a double bogey at 18 to lose by one shot to Gary Player. At that time, it was absolutely unthinkable that the King himself, the originator of the Sunday charge at Augusta could turn a 72nd hole into chopped salad, let alone with a green jacket in the balance.
The good news for Spieth? Arnie won the Masters next year and again in 1964 for good measure, a total of four green jackets and seven majors.
Rory McIlroy stumbled on his way to what was supposed to be a coronation in 2011 before he did his best Greg Norman imitation, going legs up and blowing a four-shot lead going into the final round...
...and at the next major contested, the U.S. Open at Congressional, he shattered pretty much every single major scoring record in the history of the tournament. McIlroy’s won a total of four majors now. He didn’t let one Masters Sunday loss define him. Instead it galvanized him, tempered him in its crucible like Spanish steel.
Phil Mickelson suffered a collapse at the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot as horrifying as Icarus falling out of the sky when he lost a three shot lead in three holes, including a ghastly double at the last to lose by one to Geoff Ogilvy. He’s won two majors since, including a Claret Jug the media said he would never win – and he did it with a hard-charging 66 on Sunday at Muirfield.
Even Jack Nicklaus let majors slip away. Ben Hogan once confided to Dan Jenkins that Jack would have won the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills by ten shots if he’d have known what he was doing. That was the same Open one immortal handed to another when Hogan splashed a ball in the creek on 17 to give the win to Arnie. And even Hogan blew a Masters while defending champion, shooting a closing 75 to hand the title to Sammy Snead, who himself threw away a U.S Open in 1939 by taking an 8 on the 18th hole. It’s just golf’s version of the Wheel of Life, a Rite of Passage. When the Golf Gods demand a rewrite, they get it every time, no matter who they frown upon. “Fate don’t have a head,” as Jenkins likes to say.
The attitude to have at this moment is that of a football player: Don’t discount what happened, but don’t panic either. You win some. You lose some. What matters is how you respond. Jordan’s post-round response was hopeful, full of stoic calm and confidence despite the heartbreak.
“Of course we’re gonna fight back," he said. "There’s no quit in us. I'm very confident in the way that we play the game of golf. I think that when we're on, I believe that we're the best in the world. I believe we were the best in the world getting by for the most part this week with what felt uncomfortable over the ball with my iron play….I have no doubt about my ability to close.”
He should be confident. Jordan Spieth could have won this tournament by 10 shots if he’d have been swinging well. That’s the good news to take moving forward to Oakmont and the U.S. Open. Oakmont is such a difficult golf course half the field will psyche themselves out of contention before they even tee it up on Thursday.
Advantage Spieth -- once he works out the kinks.
But for now, Rule Brittania! Everybody grab a Pimm’s Cup and scone and give a “Pip pip Cheer-oh!” to Danny Willett, who did exactly what he was supposed to do: go out there and seize the tournament if the opportunity arose. True, he only had to play three holes with the lead, but what do you do when you find a green jacket on the ground? You pick it up and put it on!
Willett did what he had to do, Jordan didn’t do what he needed to do and 12 does what it always does.
“Surreal.” That’s what Danny Willett called it, but the history books disagree. It’s just another Sunday in April at Augusta, and that’s why we love it so much.
NEWS, NOTES and QUOTES
Willett is the son of a preacher man – his father is a vicar in the Church of England. His mother is a “Maths” teacher. His son, due Championship Sunday but born the Sunday prior, is named Zachariah James. As such, he was last man to arrive at Augusta, late Monday night.
There’s also another saying in sports: “Beware the joyous father,” and if having a child makes you go out and fire a bogey-free 67 on Sunday at Augusta, we may see a population spike about nine months from now.
Jordan Spieth went an astounding nine straight holes -- from 4-13 -- on Sunday without a par. He also carded seven birdies and still finished second. You’d have made the mortgage payment on prop bets alone giving everyone Jordan Spieth and seven birdies.
From Michael McEwan: At St. Andrews last September when Willett told him his wife Nicole was expecting, he smirked and said, “Yep, planned that well.”
From Willett’s Dad: “I knew you wore green for a reason,” grabbing his shirt.
Yes, sadly, our new Masters Champion is a dead wringer for the guy who showed full-frontal nudity on Game of Thrones and the Internet erupted with lugnuts tweeting back and forth, “Reek! My Name is Reek!” I opt, instead, for “We do not sow!” - riffing on the motto of House Greyjoy.