AUGUSTA, Ga. — First, a prediction: Jordan Spieth is going to win the 2014 Masters.
Spieth is tied for the 54-hole lead with Bubba Watson, who fell back to the field Saturday afternoon with a 74, so this is not an especially bold pick. Spieth’s second-straight 70 was solid if not spectacular, but as you may have heard: the guy is only 20. Sunday he can become the youngest Masters champion ever. And the moment he tees off alongside Watson at 2:40 p.m. with an eye on that fabled record, he’ll go into the history books as the youngest pro to ever play in Sunday’s final pairing. There’s also a zany trend working in his favor: In 1963, Jack Nicklaus became the youngest Masters champion. Then Seve Ballesteros did 17 years later. Then Tiger Woods topped him 17 years after that. A Spieth win would be 17 years after Tiger.
All roads lead to Spieth.
When he arrived on campus at the University of Texas in 2011, Spieth wanted to play early and often. He told me last year in a Golf Magazine interview that he felt he had to “adapt or be left in the dust.” He observed his older teammates and emulated their habits on and off the course.
It was a success.
During his lone year as a Longhorn, Spieth was the Big 12 Player of the Year and a first team All-American while leading the team in scoring average. His team went on to win the national championship.
When he arrived on the PGA Tour, he continued his human-sponge act. At each event, he typically plays practice rounds with veterans to pick their brains and glean any knowledge possible. For his Masters preparation, he sought counsel from Ben Crenshaw and Jack Nicklaus. Spieth’s caddie, Michael Greller, is a former sixth-grade math and science teacher who has spent so much time on the phone with Crenshaw’s caddie Carl Jackson that Spieth joked that he will print “Carl Says” T-shirts because the caddie has uttered the phrase so often. Spieth’s practice round with Crenshaw and Tom Watson on Monday was rained out, but the next day he hung around the practice area with the two former champs for more lessons.
“The most important thing [Crenshaw] said on the greens out here is really understanding the speed of the putts,” Spieth said. “It's hard to get a grasp of until you're on the course in tournament conditions and you can really see it.”
Spieth hadn’t played Augusta National until last October when he completed the ultimate double-dip by playing Pine Valley in New Jersey and the National in the same day. He slipped over for more Augusta reps during the week of the Honda Classic.
In his opening two rounds of the tournament, Spieth played with Rory McIlroy and Patrick Reed. He dusted both of them. On Saturday he played with defending champ Adam Scott and thumped him by six shots.
He will fall asleep Saturday night with his name atop the leaderboard at the 78th Masters. In a moment of refreshing honesty, he admitted to being nervous throughout the entire round Saturday and predicted that feeling won’t change tomorrow.
Those nerves and emotion emerged in Amen Corner.
After bogeying the 11th to drop to 3 under, Spieth fell to his knees after hitting his tee shot on the par-3 12th. He had aimed a touch right of the flag but pulled it. Spieth thought his ball would sail over the green and leave him facing back-to-back bogeys.
It landed softly and safely just beyond the pin.
“I guess naturally, I just fell to the ground for it to pray and sit down,” Spieth said after acknowledging he has that same reaction at least once a tournament. “I guess the breeze was still above the trees. You just never know on that hole. When it landed, I started laughing and looked back at Michael [his caddie] and said, ‘Don't give me any crap for that, because I wanted that one really bad.’”
Spieth made a par, but he had another stressful tee shot on the par-5 13th.
He launched his drive into the pine trees, dropped his club on the ground on his follow-through and immediately extended his right arm to signal an errant shot that would land in the pines. Spieth lagged behind Scott while walking off the tee box, muttering all the way down the fairway. He then executed a nifty knockdown iron shot off the pine straw that barely reached eye-level and left him in perfect position to wedge it on and save a par.
Then, on 14, another tee shot, another negative reaction.
His drive landed on the right side of the fairway, but Spieth released one hand from the club at impact as if he had sliced into a different fairway. He would expertly use the backstop of the 14th green to work his approach shot within three feet and birdie.
Three straight negative reactions off the tee, but a cumulative score of 1 under.
“Mr. Crenshaw says it best, the Masters brings out emotion in guys that aren't emotional,” Spieth said. “I'm already emotional and I got to keep it on the down low.”
That emotion is sure to heighten on Sunday. But even though his reactions are less than stoic, Spieth’s mental game is as sharp as ever.
“I think I've done the best that I've ever had with my mental game,” Spieth said. “I'm still going to talk to myself out there, but really a lot of it is just kind of guiding myself, trying to pump myself up and be really positive.”
It’s not hard to be positive when all signs point to Spieth becoming the youngest Masters champ in history.
All roads seem to lead there.