AUGUSTA, Ga. — It was a little past 1 p.m. ET, and yet it felt more like high noon in the Georgia pines. Yes, it was only a practice round at Augusta National. No, it was not just any practice round at Augusta National.
This was Jordan Spieth arriving at the 12th tee before a live audience for the first time since he turned the famed par-3 into a horror film that was equal parts Alfred Hitchcock and Stephen King. Spieth was playing only the back nine Tuesday with Bubba Watson, William McGirt and 19-year-old amateur Brad Dalke, and to nearly everyone who followed Spieth, it seemed like he was playing only one hole: the 12th.
Spieth finished putting at No. 11, caught a ball thrown to him by caddie Michael Greller and then headed to the next tee as the fans gathered on the adjacent hill gave him a healthy round of applause. Spieth nodded and grabbed the bill of his cap, pulled an iron out of his bag and then beat his three playing partners onto the box. He couldn’t wait another minute to put this moment in the rearview mirror.
He took four practice swings before settling over the ball. And then under a cloudless sky, Spieth launched a picture-perfect shot that turned slightly right to left, drawing the unmistakable sound of anticipation from the crowd. Wouldn’t you know it, the damn thing nearly went in the hole. The crowd cheered, the player mouthed the words “thank-you,” and then he stood to the side and thought of something to say to break the tension that still hung in the air.
Jordan Spieth came up with this:
“I really could have used that one about 12 months ago.”
The fans within earshot doubled over in laughter, and soon enough Spieth was crossing the Hogan Bridge and approaching a ball that was no more than 14 inches from the cup. “I tapped it in Arnie style,” he said. The late, great Arnold Palmer would’ve appreciated the sentiment, just as he would’ve appreciated the fact that nothing accomplished Tuesday carries over to the weekend.
“Obviously,” Spieth said of his birdie, “it’s not the tournament.”
Not even close. If Spieth is in contention this week, he’ll know what’s coming. He’ll know that everyone will be waiting for him to say his prayers at Amen Corner, where he blew his chance last year, at age 22, to win his second consecutive Masters title by putting two balls in the water and one in the sand on the way to a quadruple-bogey that gifted the green jacket to Danny Willett.
Yet before that moment of truth unfolds, if it unfolds, golf fans need to understand something: The master of that 2016 disaster will overcome his crushing defeat, and sooner rather than later. Spieth is too good, too young and too mentally tough to let No. 12 stand as a personal Green Monster he will never clear. He provided the first hint of that on the final six holes last year, when he willed himself back in the hunt before the walls of inevitability collapsed around him.
Spieth had stood on the 10th tee with a lead of 5 strokes. Five. He was going to become the youngest three-time major winner in the Masters era, and he was going to win green jacket No. 2 in four fewer attempts (three) than Tiger Woods needed to win his second.
It was never going to be easy recovering from that. Given that Spieth was doing things over his first three years at Augusta National that no young player had ever done (Woods didn’t even reach the 19-under mark Spieth hit in 2015 before settling for a share of Tiger’s record at 18-under). Jean van de Velde was a marginal player before his 1999 tragicomedy at Carnoustie, making Spieth’s the most shocking single-hole collapse the game has seen.
But the kid is most unlikely to suffer the same fate as Palmer, who never won a major after his 1966 U.S. Open collapse, and Greg Norman, who never won a major after his 1996 Masters meltdown. Palmer and Norman were weathered 30-somethings when they lost to Billy Casper and Nick Faldo, respectively, and more prone to feeling the lasting effects of their scars.
Spieth has just started shaving. The young are more resilient, more flexible and, therefore, more likely to regenerate like a video-game character regenerates after being leveled by some supersonic boom.
Now you know why Spieth had the nerve Tuesday to sit beside an Augusta National elder and say, “I’m excited about the opportunity ahead, which is now I can go back and really tear this golf course up.”
Tear this golf course up? Who says that at Augusta after getting eaten alive by the place in the previous year?
A supremely confident player in his early 20s, that’s who. A former champion who has finished second, first and second in his three appearances here and who was a small handful of shots away from a dynastic three-peat that would’ve had people swearing Spieth would someday beat Jack Nicklaus’ record of six green jackets.
“Jordan,” Nicklaus said Tuesday, “he’s a very sharp kid, and he’s a very good player and one who will put that behind him. … He’ll figure out what he did, and … he’ll learn from it. He’s fine. He’s going to be contending for a lot of Masters for a lot of years.”
That’s the smart bet, anyway. Spieth calls the Masters “my favorite tournament,” and he maintains he’s had more fun playing it each year, 2016 included. He played Augusta National in December with some high-powered friends and members, played it again last month with Tom Brady, and again Sunday with his father Shawn. He says he feels calm and comfortable from tee to green and in better control of adverse situations than he is on other courses.
On that trip in December, when he made a couple of birdies at No. 12, he asked his friends for some space on the tee box so he could work on his swing. “We have some demons to get rid of here,” Spieth told them.
Have they been exorcised for good? Of course not. Spieth still has to figure out what happened on that Sunday tee shot last April, when he had a 9-iron in his hands and one thought in his head: Hit a draw. For some reason, he made a late audible to a cut and started a wet and wild misadventure that left him broken in half.
“Buddy,” Spieth told Greller at the 13th last year, “it seems like we’re collapsing.”
For good reason, too. But Spieth remains proud of how he fought back on 13 and beyond, and he remains confident that he will deliver on his next opportunity to win. He just wants to survive the swirling winds forecasted for Thursday and Friday, and to give himself one more chance on the closing nine holes.
“That’s all we’re asking for,” Spieth said. “That’s it. Just that small little piece.”
He’ll get it in the near future. And when he does, bet on Jordan Spieth to tear up Augusta National before it does another number on him.