The Masters will age a golfer like the White House will age a president.
The back nine can take two hours to play on your watch, but two weeks in your head, and you live with the replays, mental and otherwise, for the rest of your life. A weekend with those CBS cameras trained on you will recede your hair and line your face. Compare the before-and-after photos of Ed Sneed, Tom Weiskopf, Greg Norman, Jeff Maggert. We note, with a measure of sadness and even greater measure of shock, Jordan Spieth’s face has been added to this lineup.
It seems almost impossible, that a golfer as smart and talented and confident as Jordan Spieth is, and with two major titles already on his resume at age 22, would make the mistakes he made on Augusta National’s 12th hole on Sunday.
Yes, it is true: he hadn't been firing on all cylinders through the day, or the week. He had been shadowboxing with himself and his swing for the entire tournament—and still he had a five-shot lead when he made the turn on Sunday, and a one-shot lead as he stood on the 12th tee.
Old Golden Bell, with that sliver of a green, is as harsh as she is picturesque. But all you have to do there, playing in the final group and with a heady lead, is hit it in the back of the green. Should your pellet finish in the back bunker, you can live with that. This is not armchair second-guessing. Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods will all explain these facts of life to you.
Poor kid. Spieth is such a decent young man. They say that every shot makes somebody happy, but nobody would ever wish such a brain cramp on the young man. The shot measured about 150 yards. The breeze was swirly, yes, swirly and squirrely but not crazily unreadable. Spieth hit a 9-iron, with the face slightly open, and hit a weak heel push. It never had a chance. As they say, or should: commit or go home.
Yes, all this is far, far easier said than done. But he’s the best golfer in the world and all he needed to do was this: hood that 9-iron a hair, to give his ball a better chance of holding its line through the wind and, most significantly, take the water out of play. That’s the first rule on 12, as Spieth well knows. Even if he made a bogey from the back bunker, or a three-putt bogey for that matter, he still had the two par-5s left, and he’s likely to play them in one or two under.
What Jordan Spieth did was a shocker and it will be discussed for the rest of his life. If he wins seven career majors, the obits will say he might have had an eighth. If he wins 17, the same. What he needs to do now, of course, is win that third one quickly. Here comes the broken record: easier said than done.
After the tee shot, things went from bad to worse. But the horrid third shot he played is actually more understandable, because at that point Spieth’s head had to be overwhelmed with red-assedness and confusion. At that point, he could barely breathe, let alone think straight. And Jordan Spieth runs hot anyhow.
Now is as good a time as any to pay tribute to an absent hero from yesteryear, Tiger Woods. Woods went 11 years, pretty much, without a single significant mental blunder. It’s almost impossible to do. You can appreciate that more now than you could Sunday morning.
Back to 12: the kid, your defending Masters champion, dropped a new ball and hit the kind of flub we weekend duffers know all too well. He had rinsed another in Rae’s Creek. One in, two out. Three in, four out. Five in the back bunker. Six out. Seven in. Yes, he one-putted for a quadruple bogey. He went from five under to one under. Danny Willett won at five under.
By the way, it’s not like playing into that back bunker is any sort of guarantee of anything. It’s not. In 2003, Jeff Maggert, contending late on Sunday, hit a 7-iron into it. He drew an awkward lie, thinned his trap shot into the creek, fatted the next one into the hazard and ended up making an 8. Yes, five shots over par on one hole. He finished five shots out of a playoff.
In the annals of Augusta collapses, it’s up there. No, it's not Greg Norman in 1996, when he had a six-shot 54-hole lead and lost to Nick Faldo by five, with a double bogey on 12. It's not Ken Venturi shooting an 80 in the final round of the 1956 Masters, with a bogey on 12, when he would have won with 78. It has no relationship at all to the 13 Weiskopf made on 12 in 1980. It’s on the order of Palmer making a six on the final hole of the 1961 Masters to lose by a shot to Gary Player. In 1959, Palmer, like Spieth a defending champion, led by five at one point, but made a Sunday triple on 12 and in the end finished two shots behind the winner, his fellow Pennsylvanian Art Wall. It is a more significant collapse than Ed Sneed making three straight bogeys on the final three holes in ’79, which got him in a playoff, which he lost to Fuzzy Zoeller. It is less significant than the final-round 80 Rory McIlroy shot in 2011, during which the four-shot lead he once enjoyed was obliterated. That's because Spieth already has his green coat. Only the golfing gods know if McIlroy will get one, and complete the career grand slam.
When the long day was over, Spieth stood on the 18th green and gamely draped the winner’s coat on Willett, even helping the Englishman turn down the collar. There was a little red dot underneath Spieth’s left cheek, the size of a nickel. A dermatologist might say it is a touch of benign rosacea but we know better: it was a hot-spot of anger, regret and embarrassment.
The kid is pure class. He stood under the TV lights in the fading sun and answered all the relevant questions.
He said, “I learned what I learned in 2014. And it's just, 'Stay committed.’ Twelve is a 150‑yard shot. I feel I can bleed it next to the hole. It’s a stock 9‑iron for me. But that hole, for whatever reason, it just has people's number. That's about it. It was really one swing.
“I just didn't take that extra deep breath. I remember getting over the ball thinking, ‘I’m going to go ahead and hit a little cut to the hole.’ That's what I did in 2014 and it cost me the tournament then, too.
“It was the right club. Just the wrong shot. Every time I played a fade this week, that shot kind of came out. The swing just wasn't quite there to produce the right ball flight. So ultimately, I should have just played a draw on that hole.”
The smart ones face the music, learn from their mistakes, and move on. He’ll move on. But he'll never get that swing on 12 again.