If Jordan Spieth appears older than his 23 years, it is not simply a reflection of his receding hairline. It is because he can talk for Texas, conjure golf from the gods and, of course, tame Augusta with more than his fair quotient of cussedness.
His third round was a stirring case in point, as a bombardment of birdies – not to mention some wonderfully improvised iron play – propelled him from the edge of contention to a genuine platform to win his second Green Jacket in three years.
There is a reason why Spieth has such formidable Masters pedigree. It is that he understands the limitations of his ability, that he will have never have the brute force of bombers such as Rory McIlroy or Phil Mickelson, and thus takes every step to guard against even the tiniest wobble.
One conspicuous mistake did disfigure his first-round card, when he took a nine at the par-five 15th, but ever since the 2015 champion he has been obduracy personified. History tells us that nobody who has taken more than a seven at any hole has gone on to win. But that precedent matters little to a competitor with the steel of Spieth.
Aptly, for such a cerebral player, Spieth has a maths teacher as a caddie. He and Michael Greller, a Seattle native, talk constantly about the permutations of every shot, as if calculating his alignment with the outer moons of Neptune. Nothing, in matters of club selection, is left to chance. They took an aeon at the seventh on Saturday to decide whether he should take a six- or seven-iron to a shot from the rough where he barely had a backswing, but the result more than justified the delay as the ball flew just inches beyond the crest of the greenside bunker. Exactly, one sensed, as Spieth had mapped it out in his mind’s eye.
But it was through Amen Corner that the young man’s nerve beggared belief. Twelve months ago, Spieth suffered the type of implosion here that could have wrecked a lesser mortal’s career, losing a comfortable lead with a quadruple-bogey at the 12th, after his tee-shot found water and he pitched the ensuing drop-shot straight into the drink, too.
The par-three looks inauspicious enough, requiring no more than a gentle short-iron to a green backed by shimmering azaleas, but for Spieth it is the place where demons lurk.
Sir Nick Faldo, who watched playing partner Greg Norman suffer the same unravelling in 1996, ventured that Spieth would be “haunted” by the experience. But Spieth is far too assured, too calculating, to fall prey to such psychological frailties.
At the 13th, after fanning his drive right into the pine straw, Spieth dealt with the type of dilemma that confronted Phil Mickelson in 2010. Mickelson, staring at a 216-yard second shot that he would need to thread between two tree trunks and hoist high over Rae’s Creek, did not blink, fashioning a glorious flourish that set up his third Masters title.
Spieth, too, was impervious to the pressure of the moment, landing the ball with such softness that it made a glassy green look like a featherbed. Mickelson, who with a neat symmetry was his playing partner here, was relegated to a member of the supporting cast. Spieth, whose eagle putt just grazed the cup, was in his element. By the time another sumptuous approach to the 15th yielded his fifth birdie of the day, he pumped his fist in a private moment, knowing the momentum was all his.
There is no more nerveless putter around, even if Spieth was guilty of a rare lapse at the 16th when an eight-footer slid by. Such setbacks are mere bumps in the road. Spieth merely re-gathers himself, mutters little personal pep talks, and strikes hard again. A feature of his play is the constant chatter with Greller, which serves almost as a defence mechanism against introspection. Rather than looking inwards, Spieth strides constantly forwards.
It helps that Spieth has this game in its proper perspective, that the struggles of his younger sister, Ellie, who has a neurological disease, stop him from fixating unhealthily on his golf. For all the precocity of his development, which vaulted him from high school to the hamster-wheel of tour life before most of his peers in the US had reached their sophomore year at college, he has never appeared anything less than supremely well-adjusted.
This poise ensures that he is adored at Augusta, by patrons and Green Jackets alike, who esteem Spieth’s textbook Southern deference above all other traits. He is kind to children, respectful to his elders, he never fails to call Billy Payne, chairman of the club, ‘Sir’. If Augusta could have machine-tooled their perfect champion, he would look much like Spieth, blessed with a divine game but plenty of Dallas politesse.
When Spieth was cutting a swathe across the US as a junior, parents of his rivals would withdraw their children from the event, knowing that they stood not the faintest chance against a player of such phenomenal gifts.
It redounds to his credit that he has always carried such a reputation lightly. Even when he was putting together a season for the ages in 2015, winning each of the year’s first two majors, he remained garrulous, likeable, accessible. He was playing golf of a standard that had only ever been touched by Tiger Woods and yet, on a human level, he came across as everything that Woods was not, unaccompanied by massed ranks of security guards and unbothered by the temptations of his soaring fame.
After he won his first Masters, he enjoyed his celebratory meal at the local Chick-fil-A, a fast-food restaurant. That modesty, for all the marvels of Spieth’s latest round at his beloved Augusta, is unlikely to leave him.