News & Opinion

Spieth may be 2 shots back, but this is his Masters

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Jordan Spieth is in a rut. Four straight years, four straight chances to win the Masters going into the final round. He could get used to this. Correction, he already should be used to this.

Spieth held the 54-hole lead in each of the last three years here, but the situation is different this time. He’s in the next-to-last pairing Sunday at Augusta National Golf Club, two strokes behind Justin Rose and Sergio Garcia and one behind Rickie Fowler.

Sixteen players are bunched within six shots of the lead, and they include pedigreed names such as Adam Scott, Charl Schwartzel, Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy. Never mind them – no offense, gents – but Spieth is the man to beat.

Rose, the Olympic gold medal-winner and a former U.S. Open champion, should know better than anyone what he is up against. He finished 14 under par in the 2015 Masters, playing with Spieth in the final pairing.

“Many other years, my score would have been good enough,” said Rose, a 36-year-old Englishman.

Not that year. Spieth posted 18 under, tying a Masters record shared by some guys named Nicklaus and Woods. Simply put, Spieth has an affinity for this place.

“This is a second-shot golf course, and Jordan is a good iron player,” Rose said. “He’s very sharp with that. This is a strategic course that tempts you at times. It can dangle the carrot. You need to be on top of your thinking, and he’s very good at that. And his putting speaks for itself.”

Spieth drove it poorly last year and still should’ve won, losing a four-shot lead in Amen Corner when he hit two balls into Rae’s Creek during the final round.

Let’s put it even more simply: Spieth is the game’s best putter and the best scrambler. Nobody holes out around the green more often than he does, not even master thespian Phil Mickelson. 

Look at it another way: Spieth took a 9 Thursday at the par-5 15th because a gust of wind caught his wedge shot at just the wrong moment and splashed it into the pond. Give Spieth a routine par there and he’d be taking a two-shot lead into Sunday and we’d already be comparing his major-championship victory pace (three at age 23) with those of Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus at the same points in their careers. 

Spieth does detailed preparations for majors, a page that he took from the Nicklaus playbook. And he knows patience. He was 10 shots back after one round this week. Only Nick Faldo (in 1990) and Tiger Woods (in 2001) have won Masters titles after trailing by as many as seven shots in the opening round.

Is he resilient? Don’t even ask. “It’s hard to be more resilient than we were last year after No. 12,” Spieth said. “That was by far the most resilient I’ve ever been on a golf course in my life.” 

Rose leads the field in birdies this week, but his cards aren’t clean. He has made 10 bogeys. Spieth has made only one bogey in his last 32 holes, a nervy little par putt Saturday at the par-3 16th. He pulled off a lot of shots, but there were two key saves, at 10 and 12, after superb chips.

At 13, Spieth went for the green from 228 yards in the trees and pine straw even though caddie Michael Greller wanted him to lay up, which Spieth conceded was the smart play. Spieth had good vibes, though, remembering the great second shot that he hit there in ’15, so he went ahead with a 4-iron shot that came out perfectly and led to an easy birdie.

Before Spieth hit, he asked Greller, “What would Arnie do?”

End of discussion. The late Arnold Palmer would have gone for it, of course.

Palmer was the man to beat in these parts once upon a time. Sunday, it will be Spieth.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email:gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle