Spieth meltdown sets up Masters shootout

Jordan Spieth didn’t lose the Masters with an uncharacteristically sloppy finish on Saturday but ...
Jordan Spieth didn’t lose the Masters with an uncharacteristically sloppy finish on Saturday but he made things so much harder on himself. PHOTO/AP

As Jordan Spieth stepped through the long Saturday afternoon shadows and onto the 17th tee here at Augusta National, the Masters was all but over, certainly as over as it can be with 20 holes remaining.

Spieth was up four strokes and was about to close his seventh consecutive round leading this tournament. He’d never shown a propensity to gag away leads or back up into fields. The nearest challengers were Smylie Kaufman, he of one career victory, and Bernhard Langer, who’s 58 years old.

This was over. Done. Fit the green jacket, same as last year. Jordan Spieth isn’t blowing a four-stroke lead to those guys.

Then Spieth made the kind of mental mistake he doesn’t make: he pulled out a driver. A year ago, in cruising along with a big lead on Saturday afternoon he set up in the same 17th tee box, grabbed his driver and smacked his ball into the woods. He wound up with an unforced double bogey that he’d survive, but it should have served as a lesson learned.

One year later, same scenario, everything screaming for caution, and … “it should not have been a tough decision,” Spieth said.

He should have grabbed a three wood and played it safe, protected the lead. Instead he went driver again, thought twice of it, recommitted to it and hit it into the woods. He wound up bogeying 17.

“When that feeling [of doubt] comes up, you should never then step back up with a driver,” Spieth lamented.

It got worse. Suddenly rattled in a way he never gets, he yanked his 18th tee shot even deeper into those woods and then saw his vaunted short game fall apart on the green.

Bang, bang, double bogey, the Masters was no longer over.

“All of the sudden,” Spieth said, “It’s anyone’s game.”

Spieth still leads the tournament at 3-under par. He’s just one up on Kaufman though and two on Langer and Hideki Matsuyama.

Most dangerously, he put himself within striking distance of a bunch of elite players who might, just might, be able to launch a Sunday charge – Jason Day (three shots back), Dustin Johnson (three), even Rory McIlroy (five), who Spieth thought he vanquished via a lopsided head-to-head pairing on Saturday.

“Standing on 17 tee,” McIlroy said, “I didn’t feel I was [in the tournament]. I was eight back. I would be feeling a lot worse about myself if I hadn’t have just seen what Jordan did the last two holes.”

What Spieth did by melting down on the closing holes Saturday was give hope to the hopeless. “I’m still in this tournament,” McIlroy said.

The 22 year old was human after all, not some golfing machine. Spieth tends to make the game look easy. Just hit it straight down the fairway. Then hit it straight up on the green. Then putt it straight into the cup. What’s all the fuss about anyway?

He’d leave the disasters to guys like McIlroy, who may hit farther and may be capable of more creative shots, but let pressure and pride affect them right into the pine straw.

The two had started the day paired together, separated by a single stroke. At the 17th tee, Spieth was beating him by eight strokes, calmly draining putt after putt and leaving the Irishman equal parts envious and enraged. That slow grind is how Spieth sucks the life out of opponents despite lacking booming drives or oversized muscles or a glaring personality.

“It’s his most impressive asset,” McIlroy said of Spieth’s putting. “As much as it could be annoying to his competitors, it’s very, very impressive.”

Only then it all came undone. McIlroy didn’t have a birdie all day, blew every rare chance Spieth gave him to make a move and had a disastrous 11th-hole double bogey that at the time seemed to end his tournament.

Yet he said he’ll go to bed tonight considering his good fortune and grand possibilities if he can make some shots. Meanwhile the guy who dominated him all afternoon hits the pillow with dread and doubt and trying to play psychological tricks to forget what he’d done.

“I think it will be tough to put it behind,” Spieth said. “I think I will, but that wasn’t a fun last couple of holes to play from the position I was in. It’s not going to be fun tonight for a little while.”

He’s the leader, mind you.

“[I’ll] probably go break something really quick,” Spieth said with a laugh.

At least he could laugh. A little.

He looked like even he couldn’t believe what he’d done. Why did he go driver on 17? Why didn’t one of the most studious players in the game learn his lesson about playing with the lead here, forcing everyone else into the unenviable position of needing risky shots to make up ground. Why?

“I know I have to shoot a significant under-par round tomorrow in order to win this tournament, when I could have played a different style of golf,” Spieth said.

Late Saturday afternoon this Masters was over. Now headed into Sunday, it isn’t.

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