AUGUSTA, Ga. — On Saturday at the Masters, Jordan Spieth almost completed three of the most brilliant rounds of golf in the history of major tournament play. With two holes to play, he was 18-under-par, a place only one man has ever been before — Tiger Woods on the 72nd hole in 1997, when he set the Masters scoring record of 270.
But they make you play four rounds.
Spieth, just 21, double-bogeyed the 17th hole with a wild drive, a stubbed chip and a missed short putt. Then, from the middle of the 18th fairway, he fanned his second shot dead right into the crowd. He ended with a gutsy up-and-down par.
On Sunday, Spieth must face down two major champions — second-place Justin Rose (four back) and third-place Phil Mickelson (five) — plus one dead legend in Bobby Jones, who incorporated all his brilliant strategic and psychological insights into the design of diabolical, heavenly Augusta National.
By all normal measures, such a lead, even over seasoned stars, is the kind that almost always holds up for the No. 4-ranked player in the world. And that’s what Spieth is — fourth and rising fast with 10-shot and six-shot wins over tough fields at the end of last season and a red-hot run of first-second-second finishes in his past three events.
He’s on fire. Unless he’s getting a bit burnt out.
“I had almost a 24-hour wait between the end of my second round and the start of my third round. That’s a long time to sit on the lead,” said Spieth, who looked poised for a runaway win with a seven-shot lead as he headed to the 17th tee. “Finishing late [Saturday] may help [the nerves] for tomorrow.
“It felt a little different,” he conceded of his emotions atop a tournament he has talked about as his dream victory since he was 14.
However, his final flop shot over a trap at the 18th to a tight pin, leaving a five-foot par putt that he drained, left him in a positive mood.
“That was a one-in-five [to pull off]. It took some guts,” he said. “A year-and-a-half ago, I probably wouldn’t have tried that shot. Just bump-and-run it 20 feet past the hole.
“To play the aggressive play and pull it off was nice.”
And a perfect tone-setter for what he’ll need Sunday. Oh, don’t miss Sunday. Defending champion Rory McIlroy and Woods are tied in fifth place. They’re almost mathematical impossibilities. Unless one of them shoots 62. They’ll probably fall asleep chanting the number.
Many of those who love golf and wish it well will see Spieth’s potential arrival as a major champion as the perfect companion piece to the appearance of McIlroy in 2011. That’s when he won the first of his four majors at age 21.
Jordan and Rory may be a competition, and a contrast in styles, that lasts the next 20 years.
But we’re not there yet. And “Mr. Jones” wouldn’t have it any other way.
In a mortal world, Bobby Jones sure figured out a way to stick around darn near forever. The man who founded the Masters and helped design the Augusta National course remains as much a presence here as any living player, even though he’s been dead more than 43 years. On Sunday, he’ll linger — probably inspiration, perhaps ghost — beside Spieth.
If the young Texan wants to become the second youngest Masters winner (after Woods), it may help if he sets an even higher goal than victory. It might not hurt to try to shatter Tiger’s 270 mark, set when he was age 21.
Not with crazy shots, but with an aggressive confidence, always looking for chances to attack, not protect. In other words, with plays like that final brave flop shot at the 18th. Spieth doesn’t have to shoot 269. Much less may suffice.
But he probably needs to be special, not safe, because Jones created a Sunday test where the bold survive. And Mickelson is among the boldest ever.
“I’ve won three times here playing in a black shirt on Sunday. Studies have shown that football teams that wear black commit more penalties,” Mickelson said. “It brings out your aggression. And you need to be aggressive to win here.”
On Saturday, Spieth’s trademark — his amazing putting — trumped all tactics. At the second, sixth, ninth, 12th and 13th holes, Spieth jarred putts of 9, 20, 7, 8 and 13 feet. Many a pro can miss every one of those.
Spieth drained them all. At the 15th, the only par five where he didn’t lay-up, Spieth narrowly cleared Rae’s Creek (“Go. Be enough.”), then two-putted for birdie.
“I can’t rely on my putter to save me — not with two major champions behind me. I’ll need some tap-in pars,” he said, to put less stress on his nerves.
The way to get those tap-in pars, and some looks at birdie, is to have the guts to go for pins, but the judgment of your own game to know which ones.
Enter Mr. Jones.
To be the champion of his event, you almost always have to prove that you possess, or for four days can mimic, the best qualities of competitive personality that Jones personified and admired.
In golf, he loved courageous shot-making coupled with wise decisions: Know when to dare, according to your gifts. But dare you must on this course, especially if you have a big lead.
Jones loathed the notion of a chicken champion. So, he constructed a course that rewards those who try to shoot 67, even if they fail, while crushing the cautious who try to nurse their way around with a 71 or 72. They get 74. And up.
Perhaps the cruelest example was Greg Norman, usually dashing and aggressive, who took a six-shot lead into Sunday in 1996 against Nick Faldo, who had nothing to lose.
Faldo fired at flags and shot 67. Among his miseries that day, Norman started playing for pars, kept coming up a yard or two shy on approach shots and as Jones plotted, found one way after another to make bogey and shot 76.
Even the largest leads can dwindle on the final nine holes here.
Once, Seve Ballesteros led by 10 shots at the turn on Sunday. By the time his drive at the 14th went into the trees, that lead was down to two shots and reporters were scrambling downhill to see the disaster. Seve rallied and won easily, but the point was made.
Among the most difficult tasks in golf, all of these rank extremely high. Winning the Masters. At age 21. After carrying the weight of the lead for all four days. After squandering a two-shot lead on Sunday the previous year. With Rose and Mickelson chasing you, both trying to duplicate the 67s they shot Saturday.
On Sunday, Jordan Spieth will try to do all of that. If he succeeds, Bobby Jones would approve. And he understood how staggeringly hard the task truly was.