Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 10, 2016

After Amen Corner, Spieth Didn’t Have A Prayer

From Washington Road in Augusta, Georgia, out among the strip malls and fast food restaurants, one might never guess what’s hidden behind the dense hedges on the south side of the street. But behind all that greenery on the site of what was once the Fruitland Nursery, just a couple blocks down from the local Hooters, is Augusta National Golf Club, site of each season’s first men’s major. For the first three days of this year’s tournament the winds gusted fiercely through the Georgia pines, threatening to turn the 2016 Masters from a test of golf into a struggle for survival. The strongest winds were Friday and Saturday, and predictably enough 120 of the 146 rounds played those two days produced scores over par. Of the barely two dozen sub-par rounds only Smiley Kaufman’s Saturday 69 was in the 60s. In that same round, after the 36-hole cut had eliminated those with no serious chance, the conditions led more than ten percent of the field to return a score in the 80s.

During that round Billy Horschel marked his ball on the 15th green and went through the ritual of having his caddie clean it. When he replaced his Titleist and removed his marker the ball was back in play. A sudden gust set the ball rolling, and it didn’t stop until sliding off the putting surface and into the pond fronting the green. The result was the mandatory one-stroke penalty, just as surely as if he’d dumped his approach shot into the water.

Not all of the devastation was caused by the wind. Ernie Els has won two U.S. Opens, two Open Championships, and been runner-up in six other majors, including twice at the Masters. But at age 46 Els frequently struggles with his putting. In recent years he switched to a long putter with an anchored stroke, a method that was banned this year. In Thursday’s opening round he was on the 1st green in regulation, but then took seven putts to get the ball in the hole, most of them from close range. The quintuple-bogey nine meant that for Els this Masters was effectively over after just one hole.

Els wasn’t the only big name to finish on the wrong side of the cut line and depart Augusta National after Friday’s second round. Phil Mickelson owns a pair of green jackets, and came to Augusta with several decent performances in recent weeks. He was 1-under par through his first seventeen holes, but played the next nineteen holes in 8-over to miss the cut by one. Mickelson’s wild second round included three doubles. Gone too were former Masters champions Zach Johnson and Charl Schwartzel, as well as Rickie Fowler. The 27-year old played his college golf at Oklahoma State, and was a pre-tournament favorite because of his experience playing in the wind for the Cowboys. Perhaps east coast winds differ from those in the heartland, because Fowler opened with an 80.

Amidst the widespread carnage through the first three days, there was a single 22-year old island of generally steady play. Defending champion Jordan Spieth ran away with last year’s Masters, winning by four shots over Mickelson and Justin Rose. In the process he matched the record for lowest score in relation to par at 18-under and set the mark for most birdies with twenty-eight. Thursday he picked up right where he left off twelve months earlier, firing a bogey-free round of 66 to lead the field by two.

Spieth followed that with rounds of 74 and 73, ending a streak of nine consecutive rounds of par or better at Augusta, although the scores were good enough to keep him in the lead heading into Sunday. Following his wire to wire win last year that made seven straight rounds with Spieth’s name at the top of all the big old manual leaderboards around the premises. Add the third round in 2014 when the then first-time Masters participant finished tied for the lead with Bubba Watson, and there was an air of inevitability as the final round got underway.

On a day when the winds finally abated and scoring opportunities appeared that sense grew when the leader ran off four straight birdies on holes six through nine to make the turn 4-under for the round and 7-under for the tournament. As Spieth headed for the 10th tee just after five o’clock he was five shots clear of his closest pursuer, England’s Danny Willett, who after starting at even par was 2-under.

The old adage is that the Masters doesn’t really start until the back nine on Sunday. While the cliché has as much to do with the fact that for years the lords of Augusta National would only let CBS televise those holes, this year it proved shockingly true, to Spieth’s dismay and Willett’s joy.

There were warning signs in Spieth’s finish to the third round. His tendency when he misses is to block shots wide right. That happened with his tee shots on both the 17th and 18th on Saturday, with the errant balls leading to a bogey, double-bogey finish. On Sunday he split the 10th fairway with his drive. But from a perfect position his approach was well right, landing in the greenside bunker. His sand shot finished about fifteen feet short of the pin, and Spieth was unable to salvage his par. Then on the 11th it was his tee shot that sailed right, deep into the trees and the pine straw. From there he had no choice but to chip out sideways, leading to another bogey on the par-4.

Yet the back-to-back bogeys were nothing compared to the disaster that befell Spieth on the par-3 12th hole. Again his swing betrayed him, with his iron shot landing ten yards right of his aiming point and short of the green. From there it rolled down the slope into Rae’s Creek. After his drop, Spieth’s third was hit hopelessly fat, the ball barely making it to the creek, much less crossing it. Another drop followed and his fifth shot wound up in the bunker behind the small green. By the time he staggered to the 13th tee Spieth had taken seven swings on the 12th and had lost six shots to par in just three holes.

Meanwhile ahead Willett was making his move, recording birdie on both the par-5 13th and the par-4 14th, the latter produced by a perfect iron into the difficult green. In just over half an hour Spieth had slipped from five in front to three behind. When the 28-year old Yorkshireman rolled in a short birdie putt on the 16th he moved to 5-under par, which would prove to be the winning mark.

It was a testament to the fortitude of Els on Thursday that he played on after the first green debacle. Sunday Spieth showed similar resolve over the final holes. He birdied the 13th and 15th to climb to within two of the new leader. But he pushed a short birdie try at the 16th through the break, and when his sand shot on the 17th spun sideways and away from the cup setting up a bogey, the remarkable final nine turnaround was complete.

While largely unknown to American fans, Willett has four European Tour wins and placed second to Rory McIlroy on that tour’s money list last year. Now he is just the second English Masters champion, after Nick Faldo’s three titles; and the first European to win since 1999. With a new baby born ten days early that made it possible for him to play this week, and now a major title, Danny Willett has much to celebrate. With a collapse at Amen Corner that turned a victory stroll into a bitter slog, Jordan Spieth has much to think about, starting with the harsh reminder that in sports nothing is inevitable.

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