AUGUSTA, Ga. – Jordan Spieth stood on the tee at the short and feisty 12th hole Tuesday at Augusta National, staring down the diminutive spot that ripped a green jacket off his shoulders a year ago, and then knocked his approach 1 foot from the flagstick. Kick-in birdie.
“I really could have used that one 12 months ago,” Spieth said, seizing the moment in turning to address the huge mass of patrons gathered to watch a practice round in Amen Corner.
The 12th would seem a gentle respite from the toughness of the difficult 10th and 11th holes. No. 12 measures 155 yards, with the winds swirling on the tee not always matching those swirling up at the green. It’s the shortest hole on the golf course, and even carries a name bathed in tranquility: Golden Bell. Sounds like a family’s mellow retriever.
But Golden Bell can carry some sharp bite, and inflict plenty of pain.
A year ago, Spieth, who’d held a five-shot Masters lead at the start of the back nine on Sunday, found Rae’s Creek with a 9-iron, made his way out toward the 13th fairway to drop, and then chunked his pitch with a wedge into the creek. He eventually got up and down from the back bunker just to salvage a quadruple-bogey 7, and the Masters had slipped from his hands.
“That hole,” said one Masters champion this week, “has crippled more people than polio.”
Danny Willett eventually would win by three, and it was him, not Spieth, hosting the Champions Dinner on Tuesday. As for Spieth, he moves forward after encountering disaster last April. It helps that he landed a green jacket in 2015, tying the tournament’s scoring mark of 18-under 270 (he shares it with Tiger Woods). That means he’ll be playing the Masters into his 60s, if he wants.
But he also said Tuesday that his drive down Magnolia Lane this weekend delivered mixed emotions – joy for the success he has had here; agony for the way he left the grounds a year ago.
Know this much: Last year was last year, and Spieth cannot wait to stand on that 12th tee on Thursday in an official round. Not for redemption sake, but simply to allow himself a chance to step forward at a venue he loves dearly.
“I’m excited about the opportunity ahead, which is now I can go back and really tear this golf course up,” Spieth said. “I’ve got the opportunity now for the next, again, as many years, until the day I get a letter saying, ‘We would appreciate if you sat this one out.’
“I’ve got that many opportunities to go back and really create more great memories on the back nine of Augusta … And if it happens this year, fantastic. I will do all I can to see all the positives and to grind it out like we did in 2015 (when he won). And if it doesn’t happen this year, then I’ll be ready the next year to do it. It’s my favorite tournament.”
His record would bear that out. Three starts, with finishes of 2-1-2. In 2014, when he led late on the front nine against Bubba Watson, he saw an eery calmness in Watson that educated him, and chalked up the eventual loss to a competitor being slightly more seasoned.
But in dominating through the week in 2015 and controlling the tournament through 63 holes a year ago, Spieth has become the seasoned one. He bounced back nicely after his 12th-hole setback, making birdies on Nos. 13 and 15 and giving himself a great look at the par-3 16th. When a curling putt failed to drop, and a bogey followed at 17, he found himself scrambling to make it to a champion’s ceremony to put the jacket on another player.
Spieth is recognized as a gritty competitor, but what happened to him a year ago shows how fast things can unravel at a place such as Augusta National.
“It shows you,” said three-time Masters champion Nick Faldo, “when you get in a spiral . . . you go into shutdown. Your mind can completely shut down, because you are spinning back on the tee. What’s gone on … and now you’ve got this shot (after his drop), and you’re not completely there, and mis-hit the darn thing because you’ve never practiced, and never seen that shot.
“And that’s a lot to digest in two minutes, you know? That’s the thing. It’s not like, ‘Well, I’ve got time to think about this.’ It’s all going (fast).”
Spieth commented on Monday night of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play two weeks ago that he could not wait for Masters week to be over. But here at Augusta, he seems to have settled in, and doesn’t seem in any rush to get the week behind him. He feels a comfort on this golf course that few players do, and know there is a mystique, and even a fear, created when his name goes onto a leaderboard.
Spieth’s quadruple hiccup aside, his fellow competitors aren’t too worried about the two-time major winner’s mental state. Spieth’s caddie, Michael Greller, reminds his player that Augusta National is his best course of the year. As for last year’s glitch, Greller said earlier this season, “He’s not going to bed thinking about it.”
Spieth tees off at 10:34 a.m. on Thursday alongside two-time major winner Martin Kaymer and former U.S. Amateur champion (and European Tour winner) Matthew Fitzpatrick.
“I think it’s a nice story line for you guys and for golf, Jordan coming back after what happened on 12,” said Rory McIlroy, who endured his own Masters back-nine collapse in 2011. “But I can assure you, Jordan will be fine. He’ll step up on Thursday on that 12th tee box and he’ll just be playing to play the best shot he possibly can.
“I’m sure what happened last year won’t enter his mind.”
Well, maybe it will, just a little. Spieth admitted as much. Overall in his three Masters, Spieth has handled Golden Bell just fine. Twelve rounds, three birdies, six pars, two bogeys … and two very forgettable swings a year ago on Sunday that led to his 7. Spieth answered all the questions about what had happened once more on Tuesday, and now he’s ready to get on with it.
“You add them up after 72 (holes),” he said. “It’s a short hole where you have a better opportunity of making a 3 there than you do on the next hole, or the hole before.”
Bring on Thursday