AUGUSTA, Ga. — War has conventions and laws about the limits of cruelty. Golf, unfortunately, does not.
Of course it doesn’t. It’s just a game. Sometimes, though, you wonder whether it should. It sure feels like somebody deserves punishment for what happened to 22-year-old Jordan Spieth on Sunday at the Masters. But how do you sanction an entire sport? It was golf itself, after all, that created all the pre-conditions of the incredible pressure, built up over a year-and-a-day period, that finally snapped a great young champion.
Spieth came to the 10th tee with a five-shot lead over England’s accomplished but far from intimidating Danny Willett. Spieth had just birdied four holes in a row. If ever a player seemed almost invincible and uncrackable it was Spieth, on the verge of winning his third major championship out of the past five played. What could go wrong?
Golfers, of course, never say such things. They know. Spieth, the defending champion, bogeyed the 10th hole, bogeyed the 11th hole, then took a quadruple-bogey seven on the 155-yard 12th hole, the most infamously treacherous par-3 on earth.
After standing astride his whole sport virtually from April 9, 2015, through April 9, 2016 – from the first day of the previous Masters through the third round of this year’s event – Spieth reached a point on the 10th tee in the final round here when it seemed almost certain that the golf world would have to analyze this question: Just how close did Spieth come to winning five straight majors? He was about to be the first man ever to lead after eight straight rounds of a major — he had owned back-to-back Masters.
Now, the question changes: Just how close did Spieth come to the most disastrous and inexplicable of all Masters meltdowns?
The disaster at the 12th hole will always define this Masters because Spieth lost by three shots to Willett after he gave away four shots on just one hole. Spieth hit two balls fat and chunky into Rae’s Creek – one with a 9-iron from the tee, the next from 15 yards behind the drop area. The first was bad judgment. In the lead, never mess with the deceptive false-front right side of the green. Just get over the water.
But the second splash, on a mere 80-yard pitch shot, was one of the most stunning disasters — a gasp heard around the golf world — that has ever been seen in this event. In less than 50 minutes, he had gone from a huge lead to four shots behind Willett, the eventual winner. That’s why they call it the amen corner.
“It’s tough, really tough,” Spieth said afterward. “A very tough 30 minutes for us that, hopefully, I never experience again.”
As he walked up the 18th fairway, finishing a 66-74-73-73 – 286, 2 under par and still good enough to tie for second place – Spieth received something close to a victor’s ovation. Or was it just a flood of commiseration from everyone who plays the game or appreciates everything the dignified, modest-yet-confident Spieth has brought to it? The Texan removed his hat, his eyes red and perhaps a bit wet.
When he walked off the course, photographers and cameramen, doing their jobs, jumped to get the close-up, the money shot of misery. “Just not in the face, if you guys don’t mind, please,” Spieth said, not wanting his expression at that instant to be captured like that of some stuffed animal head for a hunter’s wall. “Just not right now in the face.”
Yet Spieth, true to his form, composed himself. For the winner’s ceremony beside the 18th green, he put on the green jacket that he has adored, and talked about constantly for a year, then placed one on Willett’s shoulders. “I stood up and smiled like I should,” Spieth said. “[But] I can’t think of anyone who’s had a tougher ceremony to experience.”
Spieth not only explained and took responsibility for everything he had failed to do, but he also took deserved pride in the way he rallied and almost got back into contention, birdieing the 13th and 15th holes and giving himself just an eight-foot birdie putt at the 16th to cut his deficit to one shot.
“It was just lack of discipline not to hit it over the water” on the tee shot at the 12th, Spieth said. “I needed to realize that I just needed to get it over the water and I’d still be leading the Masters.”
However, it is his hideous next shot, one that every duffer has experienced, but which still left Spieth dumbfounded an hour after his round, that will be replayed ad infinitum.
“I’m not sure what happened on that next shot,” Spieth said. “I just hit it fat.” By a Texas mile. His next nervous attempt went into the back trap. Hello, seven on a par 3.
Perhaps Spieth’s disaster proves that no one is above the accumulated stress of golf, especially the day-after-day of holding the Masters lead despite playing with your B game. All week Spieth battled his iron play and feuded with his driver and 3-wood, which, at moments of their choosing, blocked the ball to the right.
At least in sports, even the worst experiences are not humiliation if you don’t allow them to be felt as humiliation. It’s part of the gladiator-in-the-arena racket you bought into. But how did it feel on the inside? Could Spieth explain? “It’s probably about what it was like to watch from the outside,” he said wryly.
For 366 days, Spieth ground his way toward a greatness that would even have left Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods behind. Nicklaus didn’t win his third major title until he was halfway past 23; Woods was 24. Spieth had them each beat – almost. At the very instant everything seemed safe, the game’s ceaseless solitary demands scored another brutal victory.
The world of golf hopes that forgetfulness will eventually win, that pain will fade and that all the finest parts of Jordan Spieth’s game and personality will return to view entirely intact.
Spieth vs. himself vs. golf. We all want a rematch.