AUGUSTA, Ga. — Jordan Spieth was playing junior golf four years ago. He was playing college golf two years ago, and still would be if he hadn’t left school early. His victory at the John Deere Classic last summer was the first by a teenager on the PGA Tour in 81 years. And now, after shooting a 2-under-par 70 Saturday, he’s co-leading the 78th Masters with faltering 2012 champion Bubba Watson (74).
Watson struggled for most of the day, but after getting a friendly bounce off a tree and into the fairway on 18, he got up and down from the seating area left of the green to join Spieth in Sunday’s final pairing at 5 under. At 20, Spieth would become the youngest champion in the history of the Masters — even younger than Tiger Woods (21) in 1997.
“I’m 20 and this is the Masters, and this is the tournament I’ve always dreamt about,” said Spieth, who could be seen talking to himself throughout his round Saturday. “And like Mr. [Ben] Crenshaw has always said, it brings out more emotion than ever in somebody.”
On another sun-splashed day that saw a spate of red numbers early, Jonas Blixt (71) and Matt Kuchar (68) were at 4 under, a shot behind co-leaders Spieth and Watson. Rickie Fowler (67) and Miguel-Angel Jimenez (66) were 3 under, two off the lead and among a group of 13 players who were within four shots going into Sunday’s final round.
Even with so many plot points to choose from it was obvious who was generating the most buzz. Co-leader Spieth, as the old saying goes, was first among equals. Asked how he decides whom to call “mister,” Spieth said he uses the term for “anybody older than me.” Even for Watson, a young 35? “Yeah, Mr. Watson, for sure,” Spieth said. “Just because it’ll mess with him.” The assembled scribes broke up laughing.
It took a while, but this Masters finally has its footing. The writers and the TV people and the fans and the interested fellow competitors — they can see what this tournament is about, or at least what it’s about as of late Saturday afternoon. For the moment, anyway, it’s about Masters rookie Spieth, and whether the polite Texan is about to prove that he is not too young or too inexperienced to win here, thereby becoming the first first-timer to slip on the green jacket since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979.
“Tomorrow is about seeing how I control my game and emotions out on the golf course,” Spieth said, “against guys that have even won here recently. So they have been in the position I haven’t. Doesn’t necessarily mean, I don’t think, that they have an advantage in any way.”
That assessment speaks to a larger, developing story: the battle between the young guns and the aging warriors. With both Tiger Woods, 38, and Phil Mickelson, 43, looking increasingly frail — Woods missed the Masters with back surgery, Mickelson missed the cut — it’s a battle that seems particularly resonant for the future of the game.
On one side there’s Jimenez, 50, the ponytailed, cigar-chomping Spaniard who would be the oldest Masters winner. England’s Lee Westwood (70, 2 under) is 40 and seeking his first major. So is 43-year-old Thomas Bjorn (73, 2 under). Jim Furyk (72, also 2 under) is also 43.
On the other side is Spieth, who is not of legal drinking age, and Fowler, who at 25 has recently retooled his swing under super-coach Butch Harmon. Blixt, a Swede who went to Florida State and lives in Jacksonville Beach, is 29. And then there’s Rory McIlroy, 24, who birdied 17 and 18 to post a third-round 71, but lost to his playing partner, a non-competing marker provided by the club named Jeff Knox (70).
McIlroy was at 3 over, eight off the lead — almost certainly too far back, but still in better shape than he was before Watson’s slow fade, which began with poor putting but soon included loose full shots, too.
No one, though, benefited more than Spieth, the pre-tournament dark horse who is coming off a missed cut in Houston. He’s thrived at Augusta because he knew how much he didn’t know, and went to great lengths to seek out and absorb that information. Fowler said Saturday he has leaned on three-time Masters winner Mickelson; the two teamed up for a spirited match against Jason Dufner and Dustin Johnson here on Tuesday, and Fowler shot 61. Spieth has gone about it another way. He has leaned on his caddie, Michael Greller, who has been on the phone with two-time Masters champion Crenshaw’s longtime bag man, Carl Jackson, soaking up course knowledge as quickly as humanly possible.
“It’s funny — I told Michael I was going to buy a T-shirt for him that says, ‘Carl says,’ because he keeps saying that to me out there,” Spieth said, eliciting more laughs. “We will have to get that made.”
Early starters took advantage of a marginally softer golf course, a lack of wind and accessible pin positions. Justin Rose shot 69, moving to 1 under and within four of the lead. Gary Woodland went 7 under for his first 10 holes, only to fall back with three bogeys and a double-bogey and sign for a slightly disappointing 69. Still, he was at even par along with Ryder Cup hero Ian Poulter (70), just five back.
After a wild Saturday the numbers tell us this Masters is anyone’s ballgame, but the majors are about narrative as much as math, and who most captures our imagination. This is Jordan Spieth’s ballgame now.