Jordan Spieth’s Masters advantage: He has what others want

Jordan Spieth Masters 2017 Rob Schumacher/USA TODAY Sports

Jordan Spieth’s Masters advantage: He has what others want

PGA Tour

Jordan Spieth’s Masters advantage: He has what others want

AUGUSTA, Ga. – As we turn to Sunday, and another year’s final chapter at Augusta National Golf Club, there are two distinct groups chasing glory and trying to stake their claim to lore at the 81st Masters: Those who own a green jacket, and those who don’t.

Jordan Spieth knows what it’s like to have the champion’s blazer placed over his shoulders. Some golfers can go two decades giving themselves one, maybe two shots at winning on a Masters Sunday. The 23-year-old Spieth now is 4-for-4 in his fledgling career. That’s a pretty good day for a Major League shortstop. For a golfer at Augusta, it’s downright incredible.

In fact, late in his third round – a five-birdie, one-bogey, and a couple-of-great-par-saves 68 special – Spieth was close to becoming the first player in the Masters’ rich history to play in the final group on Sunday in four consecutive years. Instead, he’ll get Rickie Fowler in Sunday’s penultimate group.

Some players on Sunday’s leaderboard may struggle with being comfortable in the brightest spotlight in golf. Spieth? He knows no other way. That’s where he lives. His Sunday routine has been to sleep in a little, do a little homework by watching the early telecast and seeing hole locations, and then getting himself ready for a Sunday unlike any other in his sport.

Spieth will begin the final round at 4-under 212, trailing co-leaders Justin Rose (67) and Sergio Garcia (70) by two shots. But the way he talks, and with the extreme confidence that he carries at this place, he seems to be very comfortable with where he sits.

Jordan Spieth Masters 2017

Jordan Spieth rallied Saturday and stands poised earn his second green jacket in three years at Augusta on Sunday. (Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports)

“It’s exciting. I mean, that’s an easy way to say it,” Spieth said. “Waking up, and you have a chance to win your favorite tournament that you’ve dreamt of winning and competing in since you were a kid, and to be able to have your fourth opportunity now … I didn’t know going into my first one if I would have five chances in my life.

“So it’s awesome. And at the same time, I’ve been on both sides of it now, and I like the winning side better. So I’m certainly going to go for broke tomorrow.”

That’s the inherent beauty, and significance, in already owning a green jacket. If Spieth doesn’t win on Sunday, it doesn’t matter to him if he finishes second or 10th. He’ll fly home to Dallas and still have a silver Masters trophy which he can enjoy. Better luck next year.

Just the same, Rose, Garcia, Fowler (5-under 211), Ryan Moore and Charley Hoffman (alongside Spieth at 212) are all trying to win the Masters for the first time, doing what they can to gain entry into that special club of winners at Augusta National. Rose, 36, played in the final group alongside Spieth two years ago, shot 70, and lost by four to a record-tying performance.

“Many other years,” Rose said, “my score would have been good enough.”

At least Rose has won a major, having prevailed at the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion. Garcia, 37, is trying to win not only his first Masters, but his first major title in his 74th career major championship start. He has had a bit of a love-hate relationship with the Masters and Augusta National, a man at times convinced that the golf gods have impeded his steps. He says the last few years, he has tried to keep a more positive attitude.

“It’s the kind of place that, if you’re trying to fight it,” Garcia said, “it’s going to beat you down.” Garcia is the only player on the board with three sub-par rounds this week.

For all the chaos and great theater that should carry another magical Sunday at Augusta, many eyes will be on Spieth. He has shown a special toughness and a resilience that belies his years. Last April, he was tasked to bounce back from a debilitating quadruple-bogey 7 at the 12th hole in his final round. This week, he placed himself on the cutline early with yet another disastrous number, dumping two balls in a fronting pond and making 9 at the usually friendly par-5 15th on Thursday. Between last year’s final round and this year’s first, he carded back nines of 41-39. He was searching.

So he’ll certainly fight with whatever he has. On a brilliant Saturday afternoon, when the winds finally died down and the sun shone brightly from a perfectly blue sky above the tall Georgia pines, Spieth was at times magnificent. One particular standout birdie came at the 13th, as he contemplated what to do with his second shot after his tee shot came to rest atop pine needles along the right side of the fairway some 230 yards from the flag.

Finally, Speith turned to his caddie, Michael Greller, and asked, “What would Arnie do?” Greller answered, “Hit it to 20 feet.” So Spieth pulled 4-iron from the bag and took a mighty, Palmer-like lash, his ball finishing 29 feet right of the hole, setting up an easy two-putt birdie.

Two years earlier, with the ball above his feet on the same hole on Sunday, he floated an approach with a 5-iron that barely carried onto the front edge of the green, also setting up a key birdie as Rose started to close in. So Spieth certainly has some good, warm thoughts churning through him on that hole.

“I hit my favorite shot I’ve ever hit in competition in my life on that hole, going for it when we had that decision in 2015. And so there’s good vibes,” he said. “ ‘What would Arnie do?’ was my way of expressing it to Michael, which we all know exactly what he would have done.

“And I’m proud that I pulled that shot off.”

Spieth has had to fight his way back from that quadruple-bogey 9 he made Thursday. If conditions had not been so tough, it could have ended his tournament. His opening 75 left him 10 shots out of Hoffman’s first-day lead. But there’s plenty of Texas toughness in Spieth, who finds a way to find a way. There’s a connection between him and Augusta National, a bond, and other players can only stand back and admire it.

That doesn’t mean Spieth is guaranteed a green jacket on Sunday, but it probably means he’ll have a big say in the outcome. Nick Faldo, a three-time Masters champion, talks about Augusta National requiring “knife-edge” precision, and Spieth knows that as much as anyone. His putting, a strength, could be a difference-maker.

Having been in the Sunday mix in each of the last three years, there will be lessons culled from every one of his experiences that he will have at his call on Sunday. He learned from watching eventual champion Bubba’s Watson’s calmness and patience in 2014, with Watson knowing he could turn it on once he reached the back nine; Spieth learned from his own victory in 2015 that if he gets the Sunday lead, he needs to stay aggressive.

And there’s last year, of course, when Spieth appeared to be very much in control, strolling to the back nine with a five-shot lead. He went bogey-bogey-quad to start his final nine, and Danny Willett wore the jacket.

What will he possibly want to take from that one?

“I know that anything can happen,” he said, smiling.

So he will pour himself into Sunday, trying to improve his four-year run at Augusta to 2-1-2-1. And if he doesn’t get the jacket, as badly as he works for and wants it, it’s OK, he already has one.

It’s a high-wire safety net the others do not have. And that could make a big difference.

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