AUGUSTA, GEORGIA – As if there weren’t already enough reasons to love Jordan Spieth, he gave us another one Saturday afternoon as his feet fidgeted in the pine straw right of Augusta National’s 13th fairway.
He was looking at a dangerous 228-yard second shot over that nasty sliver of creek that guards the 13th green, weighing the value of making the aggressive play versus the prudent one.
His caddie and sounding board, Michael Greller, wanted Spieth to be cautious. Spieth already had come so far since that wind-tossed nightmare Thursday afternoon when he had made a 9 at the par-5 15th hole and this was no time to kill the momentum that had been gathering the past 48 hours.
Good caddies – and Greller is one of the best – are there to offer counsel.
But sometimes gut instinct prevails.
Squinting at the green, Spieth asked Greller, “What would Arnie do?”
How great was that line at that moment?
And how great was it that Spieth thought that way?
“He’d hit it to 20 feet,” Greller said.
All that was missing was one of those umbrella pins on Spieth’s collar to honor Palmer’s passing and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” playing in the background.
It didn’t matter that Spieth couldn’t see the flag when he set up over the ball because a tree blocked his line of sight. He could see a television tower behind the green and knew he could work a soft draw off the tower and back to the flag.
When you’ve played three Masters and finished 2-1-2 and you’ve wiped out most of the damage done by that quadruple bogey on Thursday, you go with your gut.
“I thought, in order to win this golf tournament – I hit my favorite shot I’ve ever hit in competition in my life on that hole going for it when we had that decision in 2015. And so there’s good vibes,” Spieth said.
“ ‘What would Arnie do’ was my way of expressing it to Michael, which we all know exactly what he would have done. And I’m proud that I pulled that shot off and it led to a 4, three-and-a-half, almost a 3.”
Spieth ripped his 4-iron to 29 feet behind the hole, burned the edge with his eagle putt and made sure that everyone watching the big white leaderboards around Augusta National wasn’t focused on the names at the top. They were looking at Spieth’s name, relentlessly moving back into contention.
— Masters Tournament (@TheMasters) April 9, 2017
The birdie at 13 on Saturday put Spieth into a tie for second and from there, this Masters weekend was officially on.
Justin Rose and Sergio García share the Saturday night lead at 6-under par, one stroke better than Rickie Fowler with plenty of other potential green jacket winners clustered nearby – but Spieth’s name could have been in neon.
Rose is an excellent player with a U.S. Open trophy, an Olympic gold medal and a tie for second here two years ago when Spieth won. García is in position to win his first major championship in his 74th attempt and it could happen on what would have been Seve Ballesteros’s 60th birthday, a potentially epic story of Spanish karma.
Fowler is playing beautifully and there appears to be a peace about him and his game this week. He leads the field in strokes gained putting, continuing a run of strong performances.
Spieth is different, though, at least at Augusta National. His record is unmatched. No player has been as good in his first three Masters as Spieth and now he has a fourth chance to win.
The beauty of Spieth is he doesn’t play perfect golf. He has hit just 23 of 42 fairways – only five players have missed more. But he’s eighth in the field in greens in regulation. Considered the best putter in the game, Spieth ranks 21st in strokes gained on the greens this week.
It was easy to see why Tiger Woods could dominate at Augusta National. Exactly why Spieth does it is harder to define.
“I guess the golf course was Tiger-proofed at one point. You can’t really Jordan-proof it,” Spieth said. “I don’t overpower it. I don’t hit – my fairways hit is 55 percent. That’s not very good. These are very wide fairways.
“It’s just been positioning: playing the golf course the way that it’s supposed to be played to where par could be your worst score, giving myself short par putts. So it’s really just kind of thinking around it and using a bit of experience.”
That experience tells Spieth he must be aggressive on Sunday. Augusta National, he said, is a difficult course on which to protect a lead because it makes players be aggressive even when they’re not comfortable doing it.
A year ago, Spieth took a five-stroke lead to the 10th tee on Sunday. A couple of hours later, he was stone-faced as he put the green jacket on winner Danny Willett.
More than anyone, Spieth knows what can happen this close to the finish.
“But it’s exciting. I mean, that’s an easy way to say it,” Spieth said.
“Waking up and you have a chance to win your favorite tournament that you’ve dreamt of winning and competing in since you were a kid, and to be able to have your fourth opportunity now – I didn’t know going into my first one if I would have five chances in my life. So it’s awesome.
“And at the same time, I’ve been on both sides of it now, and I like the winning side better. So I’m certainly going to go for broke tomorrow.”