Tuesday, April 21, 2015

A ‘major’ One Man Gang: Spieth whips all comers to win Masters

From Monday, April 13, after the final round of the 79th Masters Tournament

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Got a problem? Squeaky door hinge? Allergies giving you fits? Gears slipping in the family SUV?

The suggestion from this bureau is to give Jordan Spieth a call. After the way he won the 79th Masters Tournament this weekend, there seem to be few problems the 21-year-old couldn’t solve. He could probably fix this global warming question if he can just get a decent gauge on the slope of the Earth, maybe figure out which way the grain of the grass is cut.

Spieth shot a 2-under 70 Sunday and a record-tying 270 total to win the Masters by four strokes over runners-up Phil Mickelson, winner of three Masters, and Justin Rose, winner of the 2013 U.S. Open. He had that same 4-stroke lead after Saturday’s round, but all weekend the match felt much closer than the final score indicates, and for good reasons.

One, it’s a major. Two, it’s Augusta National. And three, a PGA All-Star team kept showing up on the leaderboard and catching fire. 
Each player -- Mickelson and Rose and Tiger Woods  and Rory McIlroy and others -- tried to fan some flames, and each saw their charges doused by Spieth executing gutsy irons to precise targets, by pulling off an especially delicate and timely flop shot Saturday on 18, and by draining edge-of-your-seat par putts. This was no waltz through the azalea.

His scoring total for 36 holes (130) ties the record in a major. His 54-hole scoring total set a Masters record. His opening round 64 was one off the record in a major. His Sunday birdie on 15 – he had a Masters record 28 -- put him at 19-under, the lowest anyone had ever been in a Masters. And he missed setting the Masters total scoring record by a stroke he bogeyed 18 after the war was won.

He and Woods now share that Masters scoring record, and Spieth is the second-youngest player, behind Woods, to win the tournament. Woods shot a 270 and won by 12 over runner-up Tom Kite in 1997, his first of four Masters victories and the only one on the course before it was “Tiger-proofed.” It was 6,925 yards when Tiger was 21; it’s 7,435 yards now. Spieth’s victory is as impressive as Tiger’s, but in a different way.

In ’97, Tiger left the field. This year, Spieth tried to leave the field with his record rounds, only the field wouldn’t leave. Rose bogeyed 18 and had to settle for a tie for second, but a par there would have given him a minus-15 total, a score that would have won 73 of the previous 79 Masters Tournaments – including this one, if somebody hadn’t shot 18-under.

  “Jordan,” Rose said, “was too much.”

First, after Spieth’s worst iron by far of the week, there was the Saturday lob wedge on 18, a shot from a downhill lie that flirted with a bunker and ended 8-feet below a tight pin. He made the putt to grind out a par and protect the four-stroke lead after his only double bogey of the tournament had come on 17, where he’d lost two strokes.

Earlier in the week, Woods had opened with a 73 but came back with a
69 and was hanging around. Mickelson tied for low score of the day with a 67 Saturday to get back in it. And Rose birdied five of the last six holes Saturday to get into the final pairing.

Would Spieth lose a four-stroke lead on Sunday as another 21-year-old named McIlroy had done four years ago?

On the first nine Sunday, three times Spieth lost a stroke to Rose, the former U.S. Open champ. And three times, he immediately got it back. It looked like an NBA game: the scoring went from a four-stroke lead to three to four to three to four and to three again in the first seven holes.

Spieth got the lead back to four on 8 and to five on 9. But nothing was over.

With Mickelson making a birdie on 13 and an eagle on 15 in the group ahead of him – and after Spieth dropped another stroke when he three-putted 12 – the eighth Texan to win the Masters and the first since Ben Crenshaw did it in 1996 went for the green on 13. He got there. And got his birdie.

“The two biggest shots I’ve ever hit in my life, coming off a three-putt,” Spieth said.

But “the key moment,” Rose said, and the final drama, was still ahead, at the par-3 16th. Rose sized up a 10-foot birdie putt. Spieth had flown the green and faced a tricky pitch on a slick green. A birdie/double bogey would be a two-stroke swing and knock Spieth’s lead down to two strokes with two holes to play.

Spieth ended up 8 feet away with a sliding putt. Rose missed his for par. And Spieth? “I was just trying to put good speed on it, feed it out there and see the line.”

Par. Four-stroke lead. Ballgame.

(NOTE: After I got home from the tournament, a couple of friends who were sitting all afternoon right by the left-hand bunker, front row, said McIlroy had missed the same putt two groups before. I'd watched Keegan Bradley miss it earlier. Spieth was the only player who made that putt all final round.)

“If I get it to two there, it’s game on,” Rose said. “But my putt just slipped by and he made a great 8-footer, which kept his momentum going. Which is what he basically did all day.”

It’s what he basically did all tournament. He had an answer to every question, then added exclamation points. And he did it looking like an old-school golfer: steely-eyed but gentlemanly, sort of Crenshaw-like if Crenshaw had been balding at age 21. His swings all seemed systematic, sort of old and effortless; the only violence in his game is when he yells at his ball to go or hurry or get down. Even his fist pumps are more like little jabs. Losing to Spieth is like getting beaten by the smartest kid in class or the chess club champ.

“He’s not intimidating,” said three-time Masters champ Nick Faldo, “but he sure is demoralizing.”

And he’s the 2015 Masters Tournament champion. He’s a Dallas prodigy who’s supposed to be a senior at the University of Texas right now.  

He’s a young star who became a one-man gang against a relentless field, a student of the game who, on a cool and overcast day at Augusta National, became the first wire-to-wire winner of the Masters since Raymond Floyd in 1976. Must be hard to do since that was 39 years ago, 18 years before Jordan Spieth was born.