Perhaps it really is true that the Masters does not start until the back nine on Sunday. A lot can end there, too. The notion that Jordan Spieth is a soaring comet and an invincible Augusta National figure crashed hard there on Sunday.
Where it all leaves Spieth is up to fate and to him, not necessarily in that order. What happened after he made the turn could be a turning point, one way or another. As long as the Masters is played, he never will be forgotten for the five-stroke lead that became a crushing three-shot defeat.
“It’s a tough one,” he said after enduring a double jolt: suffering a meltdown that featured a weekend hacker’s quadruple- bogey 7 on the 12th hole, then having to perform the defending champion’s duty of helping his successor into the green jacket.
Spieth is a sportsman and a good soul. So he stood there and did his best to eke out a wan smile as Danny Willett accepted golf’s most coveted prize and all the accolades that seemed sure to be headed Spieth’s way.
At the 10th tee, the 22-year-old from Texas appeared on his way to immortal turf. Only Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods ever have won back-to- back Masters, and none of them did it at so young an age. Spieth looked like a cinch to be the first to win the same major two years in a row in wire-to-wire fashion.
Then it all just collapsed. It was as if he suddenly realized that golf is just not that easy, that the Masters is a beast, that he still is really only a kid.
The week here began with a celebration of the fact that it has been 30 years since Nicklaus won the Masters at the ripe old age of 46. It ended with a reminder that this was the 20th anniversary of Greg Norman’s epic collapse to Faldo (who until Sunday was the only Englishman ever to win the green jacket) and the fifth anniversary of Rory McIlroy’s back-nine meltdown.
It is a rough game. That is mostly because, as someone once said, it is played on a course that is 5½ inches long — from the left ear to the right ear. When you do not have full confidence in your swing, funny things happen.
Spieth had been struggling ever since Friday, when he was coming off a first-round 66. He never did walk away from the field, as he had last year. He allowed many players back in the hunt after a 3-over-par stumble on the last two holes Saturday. The champ was leading, but he was on the ropes.
Cameron McCormick, his swing coach, made an emergency trip back to Augusta from Dallas on Sunday to help a pupil who admitted having “my B-minus game, tee to green.” The teacher’s voice helped, but as Nicklaus often says, you don’t have your coach out there on the course with you.
A golfer has only the voice inside his own head, and that was no help when Spieth hit a weak tee shot and approach on 10 for bogey and a poor drive on 11 for bogey, then hit two balls into the water on 12 for the quadruple.
It was tough to watch. And it was not a matter of being too aggressive, as Arnold Palmer (who shares a locker with Spieth here at Augusta) had been in blowing a seven-stroke lead on the back nine at the 1966 U.S. Open. Just the opposite. “It was a dream-come-true front nine,” Spieth said. “And I knew par was good enough. Maybe that was what hurt me. I just wasn’t aggressive at the ball.
“Big picture, this one will hurt,” he said. “It will take a while.”
Who knows how long? What if he is up by three on No. 10 at the U.S. or British Open? If character counts, he will be just fine. People who follow golf even casually have grown to love Spieth for the classy way he has handled enormous success. He is grounded by his family, including a younger special-needs sister around whom his world revolves.
It will be a total shock — even more stunning than his meltdown — if he doesn’t bounce back and handle severe failure with the same grace.