AUGUSTA, Ga. — For a brief moment early in the 2017 Masters, it seemed Jordan Spieth had escaped the specter of the 2016 Masters.
After fighting hard for 11 holes on Thursday to remain at even par, Spieth stepped on the tee at the par-3 12th hole. Cheers rose from the thick gallery, with the front rows actually standing in a welcoming tribute. The last time Spieth had played the hole in official competition, he’d made the quadruple-bogey 7 that cost him a second-straight green jacket.
As he waited while one of the players in the threesome in front of him, Jeunghun Wang, made a quad of his own, Spieth made dozens of short practice swings while taking in the center hole location and assessing the swirling wind with caddie Michael Greller. Finally, Spieth teed up his ball and, with the gallery silent, hit a solid 8-iron to the right of the hole and slightly long, about 35 feet from the pin.
He tried to act normal, but couldn’t hide a slight smile of relief. As the gallery cheered, Spieth acknowledged with a quick tip of the cap.
“I was relieved to see it down and on the green,” he admitted afterward. “And I guess everybody else felt maybe more than I did on it.” Asked how important that tee shot was, he downplayed the premise. “Just as important as it was for me to hit it on the green on 4 and 6 and 16,” he said.
The solid par on his nemesis hole seemed to lift a weight, because on the par-5 13th, which because of the wind was playing long, Spieth holed a 15-footer for birdie to get to one under. After a good drive on the 14th and a solid wedge to 25 feet, his remaining uphill putt looked the type that Spieth makes with more regularity than his peers, and which could thrust him into the lead.
Instead, almost the instant he made contact, Spieth began walking toward the hole, watching his putt stop five feet short. And when Spieth missed that one, all the good that he had accomplished on the 12th seemed to disappear—and the specter of last year crept back into the picture.
On the par-5 15th, which very few players tried to reach in two, Spieth laid up with his second shot to 98 yards. With a downhill lie, the pin in the back left and into a gusting wind, the prudent play was to hit out the middle of the green—where the slope toward the pond is less severe—and take a par.
Instead, Spieth, thinking birdie, burned a firmly hit 54-degree wedge that fizzed through the breeze, but because he had underestimated the wind, landed only 10 feet onto the green. From there, the heavy spin started a slow but inevitable roll back into the water.
Now a replay of 2016—Spieth’s 12th-hole sequence that began with a pushed 8-iron into the water, chunked lob wedge into the water and long lob wedge into a back bunker—swirled back into the collective consciousness.
Spieth then dropped 20 yards closer, from where it became apparent why the third shot on the 15th, so much more common in previous generations, was considered evil. Admittedly making sure he didn’t go short again, Spieth hit too long, going over the green. His tricky uphill-downhill chip rolled 25 feet past. But here, Spieth hit perhaps his most shockingly poor shot among his string of missteps. He strokes his second straight terrible mid-range putt, again starting to walk right after impact. It left him a four-footer, which, when he missed, meant a 9—his second quad in two official rounds at Augusta National.
“I still thought of it as a birdie hole today, but it really isn’t when you lay up,” said Spieth of the 530-yard 15th. “So I didn’t take my medicine and hit it about 15 feet right with a club that takes the spin off.” As for the rest of the hole, he avoided the details with both haste and euphemism. “So just went over and from there it’s very difficult,” he said soberly.
No question it was, but Spieth’s series of mistakes—just as they were last year on the 12th—were jarringly antithetical to his brand. Spieth is the guy you have to beat, not the guy who beats himself. Who seems immune to the big mistake.
But Thursday’s major lapse suggests the old immune system that used to inoculate Spieth against such errors is weakening.
Just as he showed last year after the 12th-hole disaster, when he birdied the 13th and 15th holes, Speith is a fighter. On Thursday, he immediately came back with a 7-iron to two feet for a birdie on the 16th. Then he scraped a par out of the trees on 17 after a pushed drive. Another pushed drive on the 18th led to a recovery that went long and left a difficult chip. Spieth goosed it too hard, but drilled the 15-footer to save par.
It was a good way to finish, and a 75 on such a mean course didn’t end Spieth’s chances. “It looks something like single digits might win this tournament,” he said. “And I certainly can post single digit under par at this point—got three rounds to go.”
Spieth is right, especially if he returns to being the guy who doesn’t beat himself. Except that the numbers say that he might already have. In the history of the Masters, no player who has made a score higher than double bogey on any single hole has won the tournament.