AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The faintest whispers came first. A touch right at the 10th with a 6-iron. A driver at the 11th caught pine straw in the right-side trees. But all was well. Jordan Spieth had played with metronomic perfection. For two hours on a Masters Sunday, once making four birdies in a row, he had created a classic of thought and action. Then the whispers.
As Spieth walked to the 12th tee, the blips at 10 and 11 had cost him two shots of a five-shot lead over an Englishman named Danny Willett. But all was well. Wasn’t it? Of today’s players, none is better on the lead than Spieth, who in fact came to the 12th tee Sunday having led the last two Masters for 137 holes. Spieth was a wire-to-winner last April. He was the leader by three shots stepping to the 12th. Victory was all but certain.
All but . . .
Maybe that was the problem. “It was a dream-come-true front nine,” Spieth said, a four-under-par 32 built on the four straight birdies at 6 through 9. Every important shot, every important putt, he executed with monotonous precision. “And I knew par was good enough,” he said, meaning pars on the back nine would win the tournament, “and maybe that was what hurt me, just wasn’t quite aggressive at the ball.”
The 12th at Augusta National Golf Club is a beautiful little heartbreaker, a par-3, 155 yards, perched on a shelf across Rae’s Creek, its dignity protected not so much by any gimmick of golf architecture as by the psychological demands it places on a man who is hearing whispers of troubles coming.
The day before, Spieth made birdie two at the 12th.
But the day before, he did not step to the tee with victory all but certain – certain, that is, if he could move through that last piece of Amen Corner with a cautious, responsible, be-still-my-heart par 3, which has been a Spieth specialty in the sudden years of his ascendancy at age 22. Usually, he would say later, with the pin in its traditional Sunday spot at the right corner of the green, he would hit a high 9-iron draw to the green’s center. This day he decided to cut it in.
A mistake there.
“Every time I played a fade this week,” Spieth said, “that shot kind of came out. At the time you’re going to throw all bad swings away and you’re just going to focus on how confident you can step into that shot and that’s what I did. But the swing just wasn’t quite there to produce the right ball flight.”
Winners on a Masters Sunday don’t fly any shot at that flagstick. Hit it that direction, miss it even by a groove, it’s short, it hits the steep Rae’s Creek bank, it bounces back, it rolls, and what was victory-all-but-certain becomes a shot that causes a player -- Jordan Spieth this day -- to look at his divot, taken too deep, and then, knowing he what he was about to see, swallow so hard that television’s unblinking cameras showed his Adam’s apple moving .
What had been a three-shot lead was about to be one shot – one shot, that is, if Spieth’s next shot, taken at a drop 80 yards from the green, led to a bogey four.
By then, the whispers had become shouts.
With a wedge from the drop spot, Spieth didn’t get the shot halfway across the creek. This one didn’t roll silently into the water. It splashed. We do that. Weekend hackers do that. We have done that sickening thing and seen it done a hundred times. We know how pathetic we feel. Imagine how a Masters and U.S. Open champion must have felt.
“I’m not really sure what happened on the next shot,” Spieth said. “I just hit it fat.”
On a par 3 with the Masters to win, Spieth finally put a shot in a back bunker, came out to three or four feet, and walked to the 13th tee having made a quadruple bogey 7. Shouts had become a silent scream.
“At one point,” Spieth said, and he must have been talking about the moments walking from the 12th green to the 13th tee, he told his caddie, Mike Geller, “’Buddy, it seems like we’re collapsing.' I wanted to be brutally honest with the way I felt, so he could respond with what was necessary to get us to rebound.”
Spieth fell from leading the tournament to fourth. And when Willett, playing three groups ahead, made birdies at 13, 14, and 16, only a miracle could redeem Spieth’s failures at the 12th. In fact, he rebounded with birdies at the 13th and 15th and now he heard not whispers but cheers from the gallery of thousands around the par-3 16th.
“It was very, very cool what the patrons here did for me,” he said. “And they almost brought me back into it. . . . All of a sudden, they believed I could do it and it helped me believe I could do it.” But he had a devilish downhill five-footer for birdie at the 16th. He missed it, and he had no real chance at birdie on the 17th and 18th. He finished three shots beaten. A par at the 12th and he’d have won by one.
And then, having lost painfully, Jordan Spieth had a public duty to perform. As the defending champion, he presented Danny Willett the green jacket that goes to the Masters winner.
“I can’t think of anybody else who may have had a tougher ceremony experience,” Spieth said, and he said, “Big picture, this one will hurt. It will take a while.”