Augusta, Ga. – When Tiger Woods, at 21, set the Masters scoring record in 1997, the golf world changed overnight. Major championships tried to “Tiger-proof” their courses, making them longer and tougher to dominate with the driver. Youngsters took up the game, wearing brighter colors and displaying harder swings than golf culture had previously advised. Golf became at least momentarily cool.
Jordan Spieth, at 21, can win his first major at the Masters on Sunday, and with a 69 would break Woods’ record. If he wins, his life will change. The golf world will not.
Spieth wears muted colors and displays the simple, no-nonsense swing of a club pro. To “Spieth-proof” a golf course, you would need to dig ponds in the middle of fairways and ban putters. He will not make golf cool, but he may inspire a new generation of players to talk to their golf balls the way craps players talk to dice.
“Maybe I need to stop doing that,” Spieth said when asked about the habit.
Maybe the rest of the golf world should do it more.
Saturday, Spieth coaxed and cajoled his golf ball around Augusta National, surviving his first double bogey of the tournament on the 17th hole before his nervy flop-shot up-and-down on 18 left him with a round of 2-under 70 and at 16 under overall, four shots ahead of Justin Rose and in possession of the Masters’ 54-hole scoring record. If he shoots 68 on Sunday, he will become the first player to win a major championship with a score of 20 under par.
“It was one of the bigger putts I’ve ever hit,” Spieth said of his save on 18. “Being at 4 under at one point in the tournament and finishing at 2 under is disappointing.”
But his flop shot on 18? “That took some guts,” he said.
Golf could call this its Final Four. Rose, Phil Mickelson and Charley Hoffman are the only players within 10 shots of the lead. A year after Bubba Watson outdueled him in the final pairing on Sunday, this is Spieth’s tournament to win, or lose. “It’s in Jordan’s hands,” Woods said.
Fellow Texan Ben Crenshaw has compared Spieth’s glare to Wyatt Earp’s, and Spieth had a leaderboard filled with big names gunning for him on Saturday.
Rose and Mickelson shot 67, and Woods and Rory McIlroy shot 68, as galleries seemed more drawn to big names than a record-setting leader.
Spieth didn’t notice. He said he didn’t even look at a leaderboard until the 15th hole, where it’s hard to avoid. He made birdies at 15 and 16, then pulled out his driver on the 17th, and pulled his tee shot into the trees.
That led to an iron shot short of the green, an uncharacteristically bad chip and a double bogey.
“That driver never should have come out of the bag,” Spieth said. “I don’t ever want my decisionmaking to cost me.”
He’s being chased by Rose, a U.S. Open winner who will play in the final pairing of a major for the first time; Hoffman, who shot a steady 71; and Mickelson, who embraces the kind of reckless decisions that Spieth considers mistakes.
Saturday, Mickelson wore a pink shirt in honor of Arnold Palmer. “It’s not my color,” he said. “It doesn’t look good on me, but I had a premonition after spending time with Arnold Palmer. He likes to wear this color. I just had a feeling I had to make a move, and I had it in the bag and pulled it out.”
Sunday, Mickelson will wear black. He’s won three Masters wearing black on Sunday. He found a different reason for wearing black this year.
“Studies have shown, like NFL teams, when they wear black, they have more penalties,” he said, with a straight face. “That’s what I need to do tomorrow is play more aggressive.”
Thus Mickelson becomes the first golfer ever to embrace the idea of penalties.
Rose birdied five of the last six holes, holing his bunker shot on 16. “I think I just find this an inspiring place, really,” Rose said. “Probably makes me no different than the other 99 guys who played this week. I have good memories around here.”
“It’s the best,” Mickelson said. “It really is the best. To play late on the weekends in Augusta, perfect weather, the golf course was just stupendous today. It couldn’t have been any better.”
His chances of winning would have been better, if not for Spieth’s nerve-free up-and-down on the 18th hole, with a flop shot so short he didn’t have time to instruct it.