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Masters Lesson Nos. 12 and 89 in Never Assuming …

April 12, 2016

Jordan Spieth was cruising. A one-stroke lead to start the Final Round of the 80th Masters Tournament had blown up to five (5) strokes on the field through Augusta National’s Front Nine, turning what is usually one of the best days on the American Sports Calendar, into a yawner. At -7, four consecutive birdies for the Best Putter in the World, each more impressive than the last, had given him an almost unassailable advantage.

I grabbed lunch and took my car for an oil change. Forgetting the old maxim that the Masters doesn’t really start until the back nine on Sunday, I checked scores on my phone and thought I wouldn’t miss much until I got back home for Spieth’s eventual coronation walk up the 18th, Jim Nantz cooing over the repeat conquest of the once and future King of Golf.

But as with Man and his plans, a funny thing happened on the way to Amen Corner. That “funny thing” being an epic collapse by Spieth; By the time I cancelled a Costco run and scrambled back home, a 12 minute three-hole stretch of Bogey-Bogey-Quadruple Bogey on Hole Nos. 10-12 had turned a five-stroke lead into a four-hole deficit, an outcome that will haunt Spieth for however long it takes him to win another Masters, likely longer.

The beneficiary was Danny Willett, known among the English golf media as the “Yorkshire Terrier”, finishing just his 2nd Masters appearance 12 days after the birth of his first child, playing the patient, accurate, bogey-free, magnificent yet almost boring golf required of a Masters Champion. Carding a low-round 67, -5 for the day and the tournament, the World No. 1 ranked amateur in 2008 had started the round three strokes behind the Spieth and finished it three ahead of Spieth and perennial bridesmaid Lee Westwood.

Not bad for a 66-1 longshot whose victory on his wife’s birthday lost Sir Alex Ferguson an £8,000 (~$11,400) wager on Spieth. Willett almost even earned the respect of his brother P.J., who apparently still holds a grudge about a pet rat.

Yet this Masters will largely be remembered for Spieth’s historical failure as much as Willett’s triumph, on the 30th Anniversary of Jack Nicklaus’ landmark victory in 1986 which required another epic collapse; Nicklaus made a five-stroke turnaround on the Third Round Leader Greg Norman that day, then waited in the clubhouse for Norman to finish his last four holes. Cosmically, both Nicklaus’s caddie (his son Jackie Jr.) 30 years ago, and Willett’s caddie Jonathan Smart wore bib No. 89. Nicklaus had led that tournament for all of his final two holes; Willett had only led for his final three holes, yet like Nicklaus with Norman, had to wait for Spieth to finish his last four holes before donning the green jacket.

Technically, the tournament wasn’t over. Resilient, gritty, requisite birdies at Hole Nos. 13 & 15 got Spieth back within striking distance at -3, but The World’s Best Putter blew a makeable birdie putt from six feet on 16, then put it in the sand on 17, and off to Costco I went.

Many saw hints of Spieth’s fragility coming at the end of Saturday’s round, including his swing coach Cameron McCormick who returned to Augusta Sunday morning after having left before the tournament as was his custom. Spieth went conservative at the Par 5s of Hole Nos. 13 & 15, laying up instead of going for the green on each second shot and eschewing eagle opportunities, then at -6 after the 16th, hit successive wayward tee shots over Hole Nos. 17-18 to finish Bogey-Double Bogey and give three strokes back to the field. The Defending Masters and U.S. Open Champion was fighting himself and his swing, losing conviction, aggression and giving the appearance of playing not to lose. All coming to a head Sunday on what Nicklaus once called the “most dangerous par-3” in Golf where Spieth left two successive shots short and wet – Eerily reminiscent of Norman’s freefall 20 years ago that opened the door for Nick Faldo’s round of 67 to capture the 1996 Masters, the last Englishman to win at Augusta before Willett – losing his 2nd Green Jacket to Rae’s Creek.

To make a strange day even stranger, there were three hole-in-ones on the Par 3 16th, Shane Lowry, Davis Love III & Louis Oosthuizen (this one better with Spanish Soccer announcers) all holing out in a succession of fortunate bounces, kisses, backspins and rolls which momentarily replaced “The Bird’s Nest” at TPC Scottsdale as the most raucous 16th hole in professional golf.

As it was, Sunday was set for a day of intrigue prior to the aforementioned bizarre turn of events. The Top 3 ranked golfers in the World on the first page of the leaderboard, World #1 Jason Day & Rory McIlroy there to catch a fall, instead falling off themselves. Dustin Johnson and Westwood lurking in the weeds but coming up short once again. Bernhard Langer reeling in the years. Some dude named Smylie in the final pairing with the leader. All chasing a man who had led The Masters for seven straight rounds and who has never finished worse than 2nd in three Masters appearances. But some English kid who almost missed the Tournament for the birth of his first child emerged victorious, awkwardly receiving the Green Jacket (Spieth could barely stand up, almost tripping over his chair) from the very man who had it firmly in his grasp for the 2nd consecutive time, until a fateful Van De Veldian (or more appropriately, Normanian) moment at the 12th Hole scuttled the re-coronation.


From → Golf, Sports

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