AUGUSTA, Ga. — They say The Masters starts on the back nine on Sunday. Sometimes they are wrong by a couple of holes. This 78th Masters began in earnest, and was ultimately decided according to the men involved, in a span of only 20 minutes on the eighth and ninth holes. There, 20-year-old Jordan Spieth, playing with immaculate self-control, met the arbitrary treachery for which Augusta National is infamous.
In a blink, after a pitch shot he thought was perfect turned out to be mundane, he lost his implacable composure and saw his two-shot lead over Bubba Watson turn into a two-shot deficit.
Before the pair — who seemed to be battling at solitary match play all day — ever made the turn, Spieth’s focus and momentum were broken. He’d revealed his true competitive age with back-to-back misses of four-foot par putts at No. 8 and 9. And Watson’s sometimes frail self-confidence simultaneously ignited with consecutive birdies. The back nine, with Watson ahead all 3,710 yards of the way, was a coronation at the second Chickenfried Augusta Bubbatational in the past three years.
That’ll be an extra-long-in-the-sleeve green jacket, please, with a little ketchup and grits spilled on the lapel for accent. “Kind of overwhelming. Small-town guy named Bubba wins two green jackets,” said Watson, whose mom worked two jobs and dad worked construction to help him follow his native-genius/self-taught golf odyssey. “It’s pretty wild… . Eight and nine were the turning point.”
Watson’s win was heartwarming because, as a 35-year-old player who has only finished higher than 15th on the PGA Tour money list one time, he’s too often dismissed as a prodigiously long but essentially streaky eccentric, hair-brained talent who occasionally overpowers courses — this was only his sixth career win — but would probably never win another major title. On Bubba’s behalf, let’s say, “Take that,” because he certainly won’t say it.
Does this validate him as a great player, he was asked.
“No, no. I just got lucky enough to win two green jackets,” he said, without any sarcasm or snark. “I’m just trying to keep my Tour card every year. I play the game because I love it, want to grow it, because it’s given me everything I’ve had, brought me closer to my parents.
“People always ask why I cry when I win. I think, ‘Why me? Why Bubba Watson from Bagdad, Fla.?’ ” he said. “I’ll probably cry again tonight sometime, just thinking about it.”
This Masters will probably be remembered for two, and only two, key things. First, Watson won so easily by three shots over Spieth and Jonas Blixt, on a day with no true back-nine fireworks, that on the 18th green Watson said to his caddie, “I’m not real good at math but we got four putts to win, right?”
Second, Spieth entered this event ranked 13th in the world, will move up based on this result and, very soon, may be on the heels of Adam Scott, Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and perhaps Jason Day as the world’s best player. Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros and Woods won their first Masters in ‘63, ‘80 and ‘97 — 17 years apart. It speaks to Spieth’s place in the game (he played in his first Tour event at 16) that a win here 17 years after Woods would have been seen as logical and not fantastical.
Instead, damn learning experiences.
Someday Spieth will probably sit at the Champions Dinner here and recall how, at 20, he was leading The Masters by two shots and allowed himself to be distracted, just a little bit, by a pitch shot that he thought would be magnificent but turned out to be merely middling because of a bad break — a non-bounce — that he still doesn’t understand or quite believe.
Can you imagine, he’ll say, I had a chance to be the youngest Masters winner ever and after that darned shot annoyed me, I three-putted from 25 feet, left my approach short by a yard on the next hole and missed two four-foot par putts. I never quite got it sorted out. Lost my temper once, pounded a club, went for the sucker pin at the 12th and got wet. All the things a champ would never do.
Funny thing about the future, you can’t be certain about it. But if Spieth, within the next few years, isn’t a great player — not just a talent but a producer of titles, including majors — then every shred of evidence here, including Spieth’s analysis of himself and his own play afterward, was pure golf deceit.
And what was that one devil shot that derailed him at the crucial moment? From 50 yards at the par-five eighth hole, Spieth’s third shot looked like it would bounce, check and release to within the shadow of the flagstick for a likely birdie.
“Where my ball landed was right where the pin was yesterday. And it was ridiculously firm then. I actually called to the ball to ‘sit,’ ” Spieth said. “The crowd didn’t cheer. I was baffled by it. I thought it was a really good shot. I ran up the hill expecting to see the ball drifting [just past] the hole.”
The ball had “bounced” and stopped within three feet, not 30 feet. How is that possible? Golf.
Spieth was distracted. He three-putted and had the sour mouth heading to the next tee, where his tee shot drifted too far right. Then his approach spun back off the green, and his four-foot par putt missed.
Masters lightning had struck him — “without hitting a single really bad shot.” Watson sensed his moment, got up and down for a birdie at the 8th, then made a tough 14-footer at the ninth. Double daggers at a critical juncture.
Within an hour of finishing runner-up, Spieth was already talking like a superior player who anticipates his eventual place and looks back on the present moment as if it were only part of a larger narrative that he is watching even as he lives it.
“To have two two-shot swings in a row, that’s very hard to come back from,” Spieth said.
Almost every 20-year-old who has ever played here would babble about being proud of his week or “building on it.” Instead, Spieth said, “I’m hungry, to be honest. It hurts right now. I didn’t come out on top but I felt very comfortable out there. I feel like my game will hold up” under major tournament pressure.
Most important, “I felt nervous, but I was enjoying it, too,” he said. “It hurts … I had it in my hands and couldn’t quite …” Then he said nice things about Bubba.
This may have been an anticlimactic Masters, but it also had a rich finish.
Watson was greeted by his 2-year-old son Caleb, whom the Watsons adopted at a month old just one week before the ‘12 Masters. To them, he symbolizes all the wonders that have befallen them — all earned, too — in just 24 months. “I hope my boy still likes me in 13 or 14 years and we can watch the [home] movies of this together,” Watson said.
After these four days of calm brilliant golf, with barely a glitch, Spieth was greeted by something, too.