AUGUSTA, GA. -- Before he dug up a pelt of grass the size of a green jacket on Sunday last year, no one had ever mastered The Masters as quickly as Jordan Spieth.
He walked to the 12th tee with a five-shot lead. He was at that moment 30-under in his three Masters tournaments and was threatening to become the fourth player ever to win the tournament in consecutive years.
As Spieth strolled over from the 11th green, the gallery swelled as the large group of fans who had been following him joined those packed into Augusta National’s most famous cul-de-sac, also known as Amen Corner.
Spieth had birdied the last four holes of the front nine but bogeyed the 10th and 11th. There was a sense of coronation mixed with foreboding as Spieth launched his tee shot.
The ball sliced to the right, bounced on the bank and slid back into Rae’s Creek. Spieth took a drop, then made one of the worst swings by a leader in the history of major golf, a swing that should have belonged to Jean Van de Velde, not the game’s presumptive prince.
Spieth’s wedge dug up a tract of land. His ball barely made it to the front of the creek. Spieth dropped again and his next shot landed in the back bunker.
There have been many important missed shots at 12 but perhaps never before had a leader and major champion looked so amateurish there. Spieth wrote a ``7’’ on his scorecard and lost a tournament he had been dominating to Danny Willett, who has no other PGA Tour victories.
Even given that collapse, Spieth has adapted to Augusta National as if he sleeps on pine straw and breakfasts on pimiento cheese. He has finished tied for second, first and tied for second.
Three players have won four or more Masters. Here is how each finished in his first three:
• Jack Nicklaus: 43, 13, 17.
• Tiger Woods: 41, 60, 1.
• Arnie Palmer: 10th, 21st, 7th.
Spieth’s Masters record is both stunning and disappointing. At 23, he can choose to be proud or regretful. He could have easily won the last three but instead finds himself haunted by the worst shot of his life, which is why his phraseology this week is so interesting.
``It is one of the many tournaments I’ve lost given a certain performance on a hole or a stretch of holes,’’ Spieth said. ``It happens in this game.
``I’m excited about the opportunity ahead, which is now I can go back and really tear this golf course up.’’
Even Woods in his prime never promised to tear up Augusta National. Then again, Woods never took a divot the size of Spieth’s on No. 12.
``This place has an interesting and incredible history in my life,’’ Spieth said. ``Just in three years of playing it, I’ve grown as a golfer significantly out here.’’
This week will provide an indication of whether he’s growing as a golfer.
He has has already enjoyed a peak many of his most accomplished peers couldn’t match. In 2015, he won the season’s first two majors, then finished tied for fourth and tied for second in the British Open and PGA Championship.
His shot at 12th at the Masters last year did not keep him from a fifth straight top-5 finish.
He finished 37th at the U.S. Open, 30th at the British and 13th at the PGA last season.
His last four starts on the PGA Tour have produced finishes of 22, 12 30 and a missed cut. Dustin Johnson has surged past Spieth to become the world’s top-ranked golfer, and Spieth has slid to sixth. His famously steady putter has let him down of late and he is about to putt on greens designed to punish the uncertain.
``I think he’s forgotten about that,’’ Nicklaus said of Spieth’s collapse. ``I don’t think that’s going to be an issue to him. He’ll learn from it rather than dwell on it.’’
Learn from it? Possibly. Forget about it?
On Tuesday, Spieth hit his practice shot to within a foot of the hole on 12, tapped in, turned to the crowd and said, ``I could have really used that one 12 months ago.’’
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at MalePatternPodcasts.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. • firstname.lastname@example.org