Jordan Spieth falls short in rookie Masters bid, but his best may be coming soon

Jordan Spieth falls short in rookie Masters bid, but his best may be coming soon

Jordan Spieth didn't win the Masters, at least not yet, but he appears to be on the verge of become a major player.
Robert Beck/Sports Illustrated

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Now on deck, The Jordan Spieth Era.

Bubba Watson used his power and experience to win his second Masters on a tense Sunday afternoon here in the pines, but golf observers left the Augusta National Golf Club feeling they’d just seen the start of something big.

That would be Spieth, the 20-year-old Texan wunderkind. He tied surprising Jonas Blixt for second and was the only golfer to challenge the inimitable Bubba from the fourth hole on. Spieth is mature beyond his years, incredibly talented and has a blazing to-die-for short game, as seen by the stunning bunker shot he holed for birdie on the mighty fourth hole when Watson had stuck an approach shot close.

The biggest reason he’s approaching superstardom is something else. A 20-year-old playing his first Masters should be impressed with himself for finishing second, a remarkable accomplishment, and pleased with his showing. There’s some of the latter, sure, but the main thing is this:

Jordan Spieth was ticked off. That’s pure Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson or young Jack Nicklaus or any golfing legend. Spieth was sure he could win this Masters, should win this Masters and would win this Masters.

“It stings right now and the only thing I’m thinking about is when am I getting back here next year,” Spieth said. “That’s what is on my mind because it’s tough. I’ve worked my whole life to lead Augusta on Sunday and although it’s very early in my career and I’ll have more chances, this one is a stinger. I had it in my hands and just didn’t quite make the putts. That’s what it came down to.

“I accomplished one of my goals this year, which was to get in contention in a major and see how I do. Hopefully, I can do that again. There’s still three more of these this year.”

PHOTO GALLERY: The best photos of Jordan Spieth, Bubba Watson and more from the 2014 Masters.

Spieth’s performance will start a rush of predictions of greatness. One Golf Channel host already called him the best young player he’s seen since Tiger Woods, which conveniently forgets about old man Rory McIlroy and the two major championships he won by eight strokes each. Spieth is not there yet, but this week shows he’s closer than you thought. He outwardly burns to win, which is just about his only similarity to Tiger, but it’s probably the most important one of all.

Maybe that fire gets in the way sometimes. He missed key par putts at the eighth and ninth holes that ultimately proved to be difference-makers. Then he pushed his approach shot into the bunker at No. 10 after Watson had opened the door by yanking his approach long and right. That shot had barely left the clubface before Spieth angrily buried that clubhead into the fairway turf. He had one-handed follow-throughs on swings he hated before he finished them, he began walking immediately after putts that he’d just struck but knew were off-line. He wanted to win this Masters, and he wanted to play perfect golf to win it. That didn’t happen, and while Spieth didn’t endure anything like McIlroy’s infamous McMeltdown on The National’s back nine three years ago, not winning this Masters may prove to be one of the best things that ever happened to him, just as it was for McIlroy, who rebounded with his U.S. Open romp two months later.

Not that you’d ever get Spieth to believe it, of course. He’s a bad man straight out of the Vince Lombardi school of winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.

“I love it, that’s who he is,” said caddie Michael Greller, a former sixth-grade schoolteacher. “You can’t change somebody. We can work within that framework. Carl Jackson said what he loves about Jordan is his moxie. Very few guys have that and for the most part, he knows how to channel it. That’s a great quality to have and that’s what pushed him to be the best at every level. That’s what drives him.”

Jackson is two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw’s longtime Augusta National caddie and one of the reasons Spieth was so prepared to play this Masters. He picked Crenshaw’s and Jackson’s brains on greens and reads and angles. Spieth got a private audience with Jack Nicklaus earlier in the week. After his round Sunday, he discussed the merits of playing the par-3 12th hole, where his 9-iron shot came up short and bounced down the bank into Rae’s Creek, the Gary Player way — that is, hitting it just over the middle of the bunker.

This kid is smart. He asks questions. He listens. He learns. All right, make that two similarities to Tiger.

Snap this portrait of Spieth at the Masters. He curled in a tough birdie putt at the second hole and briefly shared the lead with Matt Kuchar at six under par. He came up short at the fourth and played what would be the shot of the Masters if he’d won — and maybe it still is. He plowed a nice shot from the front bunker, got a good first bounce and jarred it when the ball rolled in the cup as nicely as a putt. Watson had to sink a tricky eight-footer just to match that birdie.

When was the last time you saw both members of the final twosome birdie No. 4, perhaps the nastiest hole on the grounds? A quick guess is, never. Spieth was making putts and already had Watson back on his heels.

Spieth dropped an iron snug to the back-right pin position at No. 6 for another birdie, then draped another approach shot straight over the flag at the seventh and barely breathed on the ensuing 10-footer for another birdie. The man had the lead and the Masters had electricity in the air.

Three holes defused the electricity. Spieth hit a nice pitch at the par-5 eighth that stopped where it landed and he three-putted from 25 feet, missing a four-footer. He caught a 9-iron thin at the ninth hole, came up short and, like Greg Norman in 1996, watched his ball roll off the green back down into the fairway. He played another deft pitch to four feet above the hole and watched that quick par putt graze the lip while drifting past the cup. Two holes, two bogeys. Watson, meanwhile, made two birdies and completed a four-stroke swing.

“Those putts, it could be that the course knowledge caught up to us,” Greller said. “We’ve only been here eight days. “All things considered, there were going to be things here were weren’t going to understand that Bubba’s caddie or Stevie (Williams) and Adam (Scott) would. That’s just where we’re at. We put ourselves in position on the back nine, that’s all you can do.”

Nobody played steadier golf than Spieth, who grew up in the Dallas area, won the U.S. Junior Amateur and played his way into contention at the PGA Tour’s Byron Nelson Championship while he was still in high school. Spieth led the Masters field in greens hit in regulation with 53 of 72.

Repeat that sentence with feeling — a 20-year-old led the Masters in greens hit. Spieth played his way onto the PGA Tour, basically barged right in with his stellar play, and while he’s got one victory so far, this week proves that the accolades regarding him were not hype. Four tough days at Augusta National and he was never over par — a consistent 71, 70, 70, 72. If anything, Spieth has been undersold.

Greller, waiting for his boss at the walkway between the clubhouse and the golf shop, took turns talking to waves of writers who came by looking for insight into the game’s newest sensation, the kid who almost won the Masters.

“We’re going to have a lot more of these,” Greller said with a confident smile.

Like his boss, we can’t wait, either.