The Masters goes to great lengths to celebrate its Sunday heroes. But the tournament can be as famous for exploding body parts and cartoon-like meltdowns on Sunday’s back nine, even if CBS has chosen not to set this to music (crashing cymbals?), and there is no green jacket equivalent award ceremony for the loser (clown shoes and a squirting azalea?)
We remember Greg Norman for going from a six-shot lead in 1996 to a Sunday, self-immolation 78.
We remember Rory McIlroy finding previously unexplored real estate to the far left of the 10th fairway, somewhere near a guy’s back porch in Bogart. The resulting triple bogey led to his drain-circling.
We remember a year ago, when Jordan Spieth, perceived as golf’s new next great thing, played 10-11-12 to bogey-bogey-aaggghh!! A five-shot lead morphed into a three-shot loss.
Norman made a habit of stumbling over finish lines in Augusta. McIlroy acknowledges he is “stressed” by this place. But Spieth, at 23 years old, continues to show he can process disaster as well as anybody.
One year removed from two Sunday tee shots into Rae’s Creek, two days after a quadruple-bogey left him reeling with an opening-round 75, Spieth goes into Sunday’s final round of the Masters two shots off the pace and in fourth place.
Why does it feel like he’s in first?
“After the first round, I couldn’t ask for much better than this,” Spieth said. “It’s a new experience for me, coming from behind on Sunday at the Masters. It might free me up a bit, playing from behind. I plan to be aggressive because at this point it’s win or go home. Finishing fifth vs. finishing 10th doesn’t mean much to me.”
This is Spieth’s fourth Masters. It’s the first time he is not leading going into Sunday. In better circumstances, he could have been seeking his third consecutive green jacket. He was tied with Bubba Watson in 2014, led wire-to-wire in 2015 and had a second consecutive title in his grasp last year with a five-shot lead on the back nine before being hit by some lightning bolt from the clown gods on No. 12.
“It’s hard to be more resilient than I was last year after 12,” he said when asked about his ability to rebound from a 75 on Thursday.
Spieth had the major hiccup of a quadruple-bogey 9 on No. 15 on Thursday. But he has made few mistakes since. He has played the past 32 holes (since No. 5 in round 2) at 8 under par, with nine birdies and only one bogey. He made a ridiculous second shot on the par-5 13th after his tee shot went into the pine straw, 230 yards from the green.
Before the shot, Spieth turned to his caddie, Michael Greller.
“What would Arnie do?” Spieth asked.
“Hit it to 20 feet,” Greller said.
And down came a different kind of lightning bolt. Spieth hit it to within 30 feet of the hole. He almost eagled, but settled for a birdie.
“There’s good vibes,” Spieth said later.
Listen: The AJC’s Jeff Schultz and Steve Hummer and WSB’s Jay Black discuss the third round:
The same young player who believed, “I was at the cut line,” Thursday, felt buoyed by his second round.
“That was bigger than today’s in my opinion,” he said. “I went to bed with my heart pumping faster because I genuinely knew I had a chance.”
He has showed a toughness that suggests he will win his second Masters title Sunday — not just because of his talent but his toughness, not just because he knows what to do but because he knows what not to do.
What did he learn from last year?
“Well, I know that anything can happen,” he said, laughing. “I know when guys press out to a lead, if it’s not me, stay in there, stay patient because anything can happen. It’s tough protecting a lead on this golf course. You need to play aggressive to win, but when you’re protecting the lead you don’t want to play aggressive.”
He is not lacking in confidence. He reminded everybody that he has come back to win tournaments before, “all the way from six back on the PGA Tour. So I can draw from those experiences.”
And then, he brought up another result, in another event, in another sport.
“Obviously the Super Bowl this year is a clean example of somebody who just refused to lose,” he said. “The entire team refused to lose and didn’t give up and suddenly momentum was on their side. They ran with it and continued to press and press and get better and better. There might be a time (Sunday) when momentum is on our side. But to be able to swing freely and hit the shots necessary, that’s a challenge, and it is a challenge I look forward to.”
He could have picked a more popular analogy in this state. But while Spieth doesn’t have a resume as long as Tom Brady’s, the backdrop suggests this could be his tournament to win. Because he’s already visited the dark side of Masters Sundays, and it hasn’t seemed to affect him.