AUGUSTA, Ga. — By the time he made it to the 17th tee Saturday evening, the shadows growing long, the big white clubhouse on the hill about to come into view, 21-year-old Jordan Spieth had withstood for nearly four hours the worst the sport of golf could hit him with: suffocating pressure, bad breaks, the sudden loss of his putting stroke and the fiercest charges the greatest golfers in the world could muster. He was almost there, the third round of the Masters drawing to a close, and no one could gain any ground on him.
That 17th hole, though, changed everything. It changed the score, certainly – the double-bogey 6 that sliced two shots off Spieth’s lead and brought the daunting pack of names chasing him that much closer. But it also changed the air around Spieth and around this tournament, revealing the first hint of vulnerability in a youngster who had been running away with the Masters and the slightest bit of hope for a handful of golfers with a chance to catch him.
When it was all over, Spieth’s 2-under-par 70 on Saturday did not sink him. He still sits alone at 16-under 200 through three rounds – another Masters record for the young Texan. He still holds a significant lead of four shots over Englishman Justin Rose (67), who birdied seven of his last 12 holes – including a holed-out sand shot at 16 – to get into the final pairing with Spieth.
He still stands five shots clear of a rejuvenated Phil Mickelson (67) and six ahead of Charley Hoffman (71). He is far enough ahead of Rory McIlroy (68) and Tiger Woods (68) – the No. 1 player in the world and the most intimidating golfer in history, respectively, who will start play together Sunday 10 shots back – that he doesn’t need to worry about their inevitable charges.
But the coronation that appeared to be taking place here this week, as Spieth kept setting records and growing his lead, was halted abruptly at No. 17 on Saturday, when Spieth – leading by seven shots at that instant – blew a driver left into the trees, stubbed a chip and three-putted for double bogey.
Only a miraculous par save on 18, from a slippery death-spot right of the right bunker, prevented even further damage as Spieth struggled to bring his round home at the end of a grueling day of shot nerves and nervy shots.
“It was huge. It was one of the bigger putts I’ve ever hit,” Spieth said of the nine-footer for par at 18. “That up-and-down – I don’t recommend ever hitting it there.”
No golfer in history had ever taken a score of 14 under par into the weekend of a major championship as Spieth did Saturday. None had ever carried a bigger lead, five shots, into Saturday’s play at the Masters. Only one player Spieth’s age or younger, Woods in 1997, had led at the same stage.
Overnight rain had softened the course again, and the early scores coming in Saturday made clear its vulnerability. By the time Spieth plucked his tee out of the ground after his opening tee shot – a three-wood down the left side – the leader board had started to fill up with legends.
“It couldn’t have been a better setup for players to advance, if you play well, and move up the leader board,” Mickelson said.
The roars – they couldn’t have been louder if it had been the ghost of Bobby Jones himself out there, jamming iron shots in tight and draining birdie putts. Close enough: It was, among others, Woods, Mickelson and McIlroy – merely the three most popular and decorated players on the course and of their generations – who were making frantic runs at Spieth’s lead, each gained shot producing another deafening noise.
McIlroy had eagled No. 2 and closed out his front nine with consecutive birdies. Woods, seemingly gaining confidence each day, had made three straight birdies on the front nine. Mickelson, two groups ahead of Spieth, opened his round par-birdie-birdie-birdie to get to 9 under and a tie for second. All three shot 32s on the front side and made multiple birdies on the back – Woods turning the clock back to 2005 with a scrambling, fist-pumping birdie at 13 – but gave back strokes down the stretch.
© 2015, The Washington Post
It was a Saturday leader board straight out of a television executive’s dream but a front-runner’s darkest nightmare – containing not only Woods, McIlroy, Mickelson and Ernie Els, with 27 major titles among them, but also Dustin Johnson, perhaps the most physically gifted player of his generation, and the steely nerved Rose, the 2013 U.S. Open champ. It was a Bubba Watson away from being downright apocalyptic.
Spieth would say he felt comfortable all day, but the fact remains he started making mistakes he hadn’t made all day. There were a trio of three-putts, including the fateful double bogey on 17, an occasional loose swing and at least one big tactical error – when he chose a driver instead of the three-wood off the 17th tee – before he could reach the safety and seclusion of the clubhouse.
“Driver should have never come out of my bag at that point,” he lamented. “I was getting a little erratic with the driver, and I can hit 3-wood, 8-iron in there and have a 20-footer to two putt.”
And so Sunday at the Masters might still end with Spieth’s coronation. It might end with Woods’s 1997 record of 18 under falling. But before any of those things happen, Sunday at the Masters promises be a true and spirited competition.
© 2015, The Washington Post