Just after two in the afternoon Jordan Spieth set himself for the most keenly awaited shot of the day, one the world had been waiting 362 days to see him play. Spieth has been around Augusta National almost half a dozen times since he took that quadruple bogey and blew a three-shot lead at the 12th back in 2016.
He played once with his father, once again with Tom Brady, a couple of times with the members and a couple more in practice this week. Which helped “get rid of some”, as he put it back in January. But they were not in the first round of the Masters, with 92 other golfers on his heels, all chasing the greatest prize in the game, several thousand fans behind his back and a stiff wind in his face.
Spieth has taken a little criticism this week for the curious remarks he made after he missed the cut at the Houston Open, when he said that he knows he and his caddie, Michael Greller, “strike fear in others” at the Masters.
As he reached the brow of the hill midway down the dogleg 11th, and came into view of Amen Corner for the first time in this tournament, one wonders if the holes he could see lying in wait ahead perhaps did not strike just a touch of fear in him, a slight tremor in the knees, perhaps, or a few passing butterflies in the gut. He hit his next approach the wrong side of the pin, perilously close to the water. It stopped on the tip of the bank, an inch or so short of a dip. That left him a 60-foot putt for birdie and then a tap-in for par.
If Spieth needed a reminder of what a devilish little hole the 12th is, he had it while he was waiting to take the long putt at the 11th. Away ahead the next group were in view, all three players and all three caddies thrashing around in the pine needles between the trees way up on the bank behind the green, looking for a lost ball.
It belonged to Jeunghun Wang, a 21-year-old from South Korea playing here for the second time. Wang had made it through the first 11 holes in even par. But at the 12th he ran out of luck. He took too much club and his ball was last seen heading over towards the neighbouring Country Club. They never did find it.
While that was going on, Spieth made his par on the 11th and took the short walk to the 12th, waited while Wang finished off his triple-bogey six, waved to acknowledge the round of applause and then addressed his ball. Now, every golfer who has played Augusta National has a theory on how to read the wind at the 12th. Ben Hogan said you should not hit until you felt the breeze on your cheek.
Ken Venturi reckoned you should go only when the flag at the 12th was limp. Fuzzy Zoeller thought you needed to watch the trees. Curtis Strange said you should keep your eyes on the ripples in the water. Spieth’s biggest worry, he said, was one of those gusts that come up from behind, like the one that caught Wang’s ball.
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Whichever method Spieth used, it served him fine. He struck a neat tee shot to the back right of the green, easy as, and all around, his fans breathed a great sigh of relief. Two putts for par, his 10th of the round so far, a birdie at the 13th, and he was round Amen Corner in one under, which left him tied second on the leaderboard, a shot back. Only, after all that, it turned out that it was not the 12th he needed to worry about. Spieth made a bogey five at the 14th. And then he got to the 15th, Firethorn. And things got really bad.
Spieth laid up with his second shot. Then his third spun into the water. His fifth, from a drop, sailed way over the back of the green. His sixth, a chip, whistled back the other way. And from there it took him three putts to get down.
It all added up to nine, which, meant that he had made another quadruple bogey. Spieth has scored only three of these in his career. Two of them have now come on the second nine at Augusta, in back-to-back rounds. The big difference between last year’s and this, of course, is that one was on the final day of the tournament and the other on the first. But that is not necessarily going to console him too much. Nobody has ever won the Masters after making more than seven on a single hole.
Just like that, then, Spieth, was four over, and six shots off the lead. But he is nothing if not tenacious. He pulled one back with a fine tee shot at the 16th to set up a birdie and scrambled home with a par at the 17th and another at the 18th, finishing with a brilliant 15-foot putt.
That left him three over par. Which looked good when set next to his playing partner, Martin Kaymer, who was three shots further back again. But still. That one hole may well have cost Spieth his shot at winning the tournament. Time was when he made playing this course look ever so easy but not any more. If there is one upside to it all, at least he will not have to wait a year to try to put it right this time.