The most anticipated story of the 2017 Masters is how Jordan Spieth responds after last year’s debacle at the 12th hole. All signs suggest that the 23-year-old Texan will be able to put it behind him. History says he best be careful.
Joan Chittenden has attended more than 50 Masters, but last year was the first time she cut out early. A spunky, silver-haired Augusta native, Chittenden, 80, was seated in a chair behind the 12th tee last Masters Sunday, as she has religiously done on most Masters Sundays since 1959. But last year she saw something that unnerved her. When Jordan Spieth, leading by one, splashed two balls into Rae’s Creek short of the green and carded a quadruple-bogey 7, it was too much to bear.
“Many times when a final group comes through, I follow them in,” Chittenden says. “I followed Ben Hogan in 1967 when he shot 30 on the final nine [on Saturday]. I followed Phil [Mickelson] in 2010 and saw his shot off the pine straw [at the par-5 13th]. When Jordan went through, I was devastated. I left the course and watched the ending on TV.”
It was as if the oxygen had been sucked out of the pines at Augusta National. Spieth’s blowup was stunning but, in a way, eerily familiar to the Masters disasters experienced by Greg Norman in 1996 and Rory McIlroy in 2011.
Now Spieth is back at Augusta, more rested than he was a year ago and determined to scrub away the stain from the 12th hole. How he responds looms as the most anticipated story of the golf year.
All signs point to his recovering more adroitly than Norman or McIlroy did. First, unlike the Shark and Rory, Spieth has a green jacket hanging in the champions’ locker room. But there’s also something deeper, almost metaphysical, in his psyche, which manifested itself as he made two birdies coming home while trying to chase down Danny Willett. Or as he triumphed in spectacular fashion at Colonial seven weeks later, making birdies on the last three holes while facing the pressure of trying to win in the shadow of his hometown.
“The part of the brain that processes pain and fear is the amygdala,” says Gio Valiante, a golf psychologist whose stable of players has won more than 50 Tour events. “It’s about the shape and the size of an almond—we call it the ‘Oh, s— almond.’ Once you experience something like that 12th hole, the trigger gets more sensitive. The only way to build the proper scar tissue is with success. He repaired very quickly, with those birdies and the subsequent win.”
It’s also worth noting that as Spieth attempted to become only the fourth player to successfully defend his Masters title, he built a five-shot lead through 63 holes with nothing close to his sharpest game. He missed fairways and sprayed irons. Even his vaunted short game let him down. “The sign of a great player is to maximize the capacity of the moment, regardless of what you have,” says Bhrett McCabe, a sports psychologist whose golf clients include Graeme McDowell, Harris English and Hudson Swafford. “He was able to take his game that was struggling and make it elite. Then the mistake happened—what I call a ‘riptide,’ when the game all of a sudden turns against you and everything you’re trying makes it worse.”
You might say a riptide sucked those two balls to the bottom of Rae’s Creek. McCabe and Valiante agree that Spieth’s trouble started with his decision on the tee, when he chose to play a fade, a shot shape he had struggled to execute all week.
The bounce-back ability is what separates Spieth from his peers. (He ranked fifth on Tour in the category in 2015, when he also won the U.S. Open and three other events.) In 2011, McIlroy led the Masters after 54 holes, and he stood on the 10th tee on Sunday with a one-shot lead. Then he snapped his drive into the pines and cabins left of the fairway, made triple bogey and spiraled to an eight-over 80. In five subsequent appearances, McIlroy has hardly made a blip at Augusta; last spring he played with Spieth in the final group on Saturday and staggered to a 77. Valiante is convinced McIlroy still faces demons.
“When he shot 77, he said it had nothing to do with ball striking,” says Valiante. “He said he was dealing with a mental hurdle, with the pressure. What he doesn’t realize is that pressure is rooted in 2011, when he didn’t repair. That’s the power of the amygdala.”
Spieth’s crash presents more than a psychological case study; the analytics are also captivating. The events of the 2016 Masters inspired a three-person team of data scientists at The Economist to develop a formula for predicting win probability in real time, which was dubbed EAGLE. (As he began the back nine on Sunday, Spieth had a 95.5% chance of winning.) This year the algorithm was updated to include performances on specific holes, which means that even though Spieth has played the 12th in a combined one under par in his 11 other career rounds, his odds will be skewed by the quad.
“Our model will not add any extra likelihood to choke, just because he did it last year,” says Dan Rosenheck, a data editor for The Economist. “But our model will account for that hole score.”
That said, Spieth is hardly John Daly without the country songs and garish slacks. Spieth is unlikely to go down as a new-generation Norman because he has a completely different (and healthier) method for handling adversity.
“Norman used to have a strategy where he would visualize a toilet and flush away bad things,” says Valiante, who hasn’t worked with the Shark or Spieth. “Jordan does the opposite. When the moment confronts him, he will confront it right back. He will not psychologically escape. History has shown that when he does that, he wins. That’s what he’s done his whole life.”
In fact, while battling Bubba Watson on Masters Sunday in 2014, Spieth scrambled to make bogey after his tee shot at 12 trickled back into the water. But he’s never faced an issue of the magnitude of what transpired last year. Networks will undoubtedly play the debacle on a loop, and the press will pepper him with questions. In an added knife-twist only the Masters can provide, Spieth also will have to endure the traditional Tuesday champions dinner, which celebrates Willett as the defending champ.
“Psychologically, the biggest challenge is going to be that even if he has let it go, the world hasn’t,” Valiante says. “And the world will remind him.” Adds McCabe, “Of course there will be nerves. There will be nerves even if he didn’t have that scene on 12. It’ll be different. The best thing to do is embrace the questions and be totally honest.”
Candidness has never been a problem for Spieth, who, at the ripe age of 23, returns to Augusta National scarred yet wiser. His career major haul remains at two, but there is reason for optimism. In three Masters appearances, he has finished no worse than second. He held the outright lead at the end of seven consecutive rounds. In December he played 36 holes at the National, birdied 12 both times and giddily said, “I was walking around with my hands up, like, demon’s gone.”
Valiante is confident Spieth is prepared to handle the scrutiny that awaits. “By virtue of his upbringing, with his [special-needs] sister and wonderful parents, he has tremendous perspective, and perspective leads to freedom,” Valiante says. “When you combine his competitiveness and fearlessness with that perspective, it’s a killer combo. It’s why I suspect he’ll be ready for the moment.”
More reasons for optimism: Early last year Spieth went on a globe-trotting tour and was running on fumes when he got to Augusta, but this time he appears rested and more mentally sharp. At Pebble Beach in February he showed he could close with a big lead; he built a six-shot edge through 54 holes and fired a bogey-free, two-under-par 70 to win by four. He leads the Tour in greens in regulation, which is testament to his improved ball striking and proof that he can win with more than his putter. The sharps in Las Vegas have installed him as the second favorite, behind World No. 1 Dustin Johnson. In the end it may all come down to how Spieth negotiates the 155-yard hole known as Golden Bell. Chittenden will be there to witness it all, from her perch behind the 12th tee.
“I do like him so much and would love for him to win,” she says. “I think we’ll find out who he is this year.”