AUGUSTA, Ga. — Jordan Spieth was close enough to taste his chance at doing something very special in the Masters. The truth is, he still does have the chance to make history. The trouble for him is that, after the way he finished on Saturday, he gave a whole lot of other golfers a chance, period.
It was a glass half-full, glass half-empty ambivalence with which he left the course Saturday night. The good news for him was that he is 3-under par, holding the 54-hole Masters lead for the third consecutive year (tying a record) and having set another record by finishing with the lead for a seventh consecutive round. His bad news is the good news could have been much better.
Spieth, the defending champion, was cruising with a four-shot lead with two holes to go. “And they are not the hard holes out here,” he said later. What happened was that he pushed his final two tee shots into the trees and made bogey and double-bogey. So his lead is only one over his former junior golf foe Smylie Kaufman and really only a whisker over various other contenders, including 58-year-old Bernhard Langer (tied with Hideki Matsuyama for third at 1 under).
He reflected on the idea that, when he was at 6 under, “anyone who is over par is almost out of the tournament . . . And now with very little wind (expected) tomorrow, someone gets on a run and shoots 6 under, 7 under . . . I know I have to shoot a significant under-par round tomorrow in order to win this tournament.”
Last year, he had a four-stroke lead starting the fourth round and was on his way to a record-tying low score. But this year is completely different. For many golfers, hopes for low scores evoked an old southern standard, “Gone With the Wind.” The breezes, combined with fast, hard greens made every approach and every putt a challenge.
Spieth was among those who fell prey, making a double bogey on the par-4 11th hole. But he bounced right back with a birdie on the tough par-3 12th. His momentum crested with birdies on 14 and 15, fueled by a putter that only took 30 strokes. On each of the final two holes, he punched out into the fairway, but chipped up well short. “All of a sudden it’s anyone’s game, so it’s tough to swallow,” he said.
“Anyone” includes Jason Day, tied for fifth at par with Dustin Johnson and Danny Willett. Day, ranked No. 1 in the world, has been only average since a strong front nine Thursday, but he has a chance. “It’s always hard to have the lead at a major championship with these conditions,” Day said. “So I just kept saying to myself, ‘Just keep grinding out, just keep trying to get your birdies when you can, minimize mistakes and just be patient.’”
Kaufman had a strong round, 3-under-par 69, and will be paired with Spieth on Sunday. Nothing new there. They often played together when they were teens. “He’s probably 1,000-0. He’s always beating me,” Kaufman said, adding that he considers himself a late bloomer.
Nobody in the field is blossoming so late in life as Langer, who took only 27 putts in shooting 70 on Saturday. Of that, Spieth said, “I think it’s incredible. I would say I’m surprised except that doesn’t he win most every tournament on the Champions Tour? We watch him on TV all the time and he’s a guy who certainly knows how to close, and close here.”
Spieth can close with the best of them, too. If he wins on Sunday, he will be the first since Tiger Woods in 2001-02 to win back-to-back Masters. Jack Nicklaus and Nick Faldo are the only others who ever have done it. So, all things considered, Spieth is in good position and thought he did a good job Saturday, adding, “Minus the last two holes.”