Buckle up, everyone … here comes Jordan Spieth

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Jordan Spieth walked into the interview room Saturday night, roughly 20 minutes after putting the finishing touches on a sizzling 68 that gives him a legit chance to win a second green jacket, and took a long, silent look at the digital leaderboard on the wall. There was Justin Rose at the top, followed by Sergio Garcia and Rickie Fowler. Three great players, all ahead of Spieth by at least a stroke.

Spieth said nothing. But the look on his face basically said everything.

Buckle up, boys. Here I come.

“I’ve been on both sides of it now, and I like the winning side better,” Spieth said. “So I’m certainly going to go for broke tomorrow.”

We probably should have seen this coming, even after Spieth made a quadruple-bogey on Thursday. There is just something about this place — and it’s difficult to properly explain — that clearly turns Spieth into a virtuoso, even as it is confounding others.

The magic isn’t always with him. The meltdown at the 12th hole last year is evidence the spell can be broken, and certainly the 9 on his card during the first round would be as well. But so often when you watch Spieth work his way around Augusta National, it’s like watching the smartest kid in class solve a physics problem. He’ll talk to the wind, analyze angles and glare at the blades of grass touching his golf ball, muttering and smiling as he goes. Spieth can’t physically overpower the course like Tiger Woods did, or Jack Nicklaus could in a previous era. His mind, however, might be on par with theirs when it comes to melding art with analytics; and if he somehow wins Sunday, he’ll have won his second green jacket at age 23. Neither Nicklaus nor Woods won a second until they were 25.

“I guess the golf course was Tiger-proofed at one point,” Spieth joked, when asked why his game seemed to shine here so often. “You can’t really Jordan-proof it. I don’t overpower it.”

This is the fourth time Spieth has played in the Masters, and it will be the first he won’t go out in the final group on Sunday. Instead, he’ll go out in the second-to-last group with Fowler. Rose and Garcia will go off last, at 2:45 p.m. ET.

“New experience for me, coming from behind on Sunday at the Masters, which is kind of fun to say,” Spieth said. “Tomorrow might free me up a bit, being behind. I plan to play aggressive because, at this point, it’s win or go home. So you pull off the shots and you make the putts. I want to give myself a chance for that to be enough. And if I don’t, so be it. Finishing fifth versus 10th doesn’t mean much to me, so that frees me up a bit.”

If Spieth were to win, it would make for an interesting historical footnote: Dating back to 1983, since the PGA Tour started keeping track of statistics for every hole, no player has ever won a major while making a quadruple-bogey. Only two players, Woods at the 2000 U.S. Open and Keegan Bradley at the 2011 PGA, have won a major while making a triple-bogey. The difference between 2016 and 2017 for Spieth might come down to the fact that he had only six holes to play after his quad in 2016, but 57 holes to erase it after making one in 2017. It’s easy to forget he made two birdies after his 2016 quad, and nearly aced the 16th hole trying to catch Danny Willett. He just ran out of holes.

“That was by far the most resilient I’ve ever been on a golf course in my life,” Spieth said, in reference to 2016.

If there is a moment when Spieth’s Saturday round downshifted and began picking up steam, it was the long birdie putt he made at No. 6 to get into red figures for the first time since the quad. On the eighth hole, after a good drive, he smoked a 3-wood up the hill that pinballed off the mounds protecting the green, a shot that could have ricocheted anywhere with a bad bounce. Instead, improbably, it settled 15 feet from the pin. Spieth barely missed the eagle putt, the ball grazing the hole as it went by, but the tap-in for birdie, then another tap-in after he hit it to a foot on No. 9, created a buzz in the gallery you could hear on every tee box and around every green.

Wow. Here comes Jordan! Even the other players in the field couldn’t help but notice as his name climbed the leaderboard.

“Jordan obviously has a special relationship with the Masters,” Rose said. “It’s a second-shot golf course, and he’s a good iron player. He’s very sharp with that. He’s got a great golfing brain. This is a very strategic golf course and you have to make good, smart decisions out there. It tempts you at times. It can dangle a carrot. You need to be on top of your thinking and he’s very good at that and his putting speaks for itself.”

When Spieth is playing well, there is a strut to the way he walks the fairways that’s impossible to miss. It’s not as distinctive as Rory McIlroy‘s head-bobbing, club-twirling alpha male strut, and it’s not as friendly as Phil Mickelson‘s cap-tipping, thumb-wagging stroll. But it’s distinctive in its own way. His eyes narrow, and his back gets straighter, and he stops making eye contact with anyone except his caddie, Michael Greller. It’s as if he’s looking right through people. He had that look when he was walking to his drive on No. 13 on Saturday, a shot he’d blocked just a hair toward the trees on the right. It left him 228 to the hole. He had a choice to make: Go for the green, even though he couldn’t see it through the trees, or lay up short of the pond to the same yardage where he made a quadruple-bogey on Thursday, and try to make birdie.

He and Greller talked it over, mulling the options. The rest of the world melted away. It’s possible Spieth’s tournament chances hung in the balance. Spieth wanted to go for it; Greller wanted a layup. Spieth insisted he could get a 4-iron over Rae’s Creek. The shot reminded him of a shot he hit in 2015, maybe the proudest moment of his career, when he went for that same green in two. He tried to appeal to Greller’s heart instead of his brain.

“What would Arnie do, Mike?” Spieth said, referencing Arnold Palmer.

“He’d hit it right below it, 20 feet,” Greller said.

“All right, let’s do that,” Spieth said.

They decided it was go time.

Spieth wiggled his feet, trying to get comfortable in the pine straw. He took one final look, then lashed at the ball, hitting it flush. It climbed steadily into the air, easily carrying the creek, and landed softly on the green, and trickled 20 feet from the pin. He two-putted for birdie. He added another birdie on 15, hitting a wedge to 7 inches from the same spot where he made 9 on Thursday.

“I had confidence in the layup situation, but I had a great number,” Spieth said. “We all know what [Palmer] would have done.”

Spieth bogeyed 16 after his only poor iron shot of the day, but made two good swings on 17 and walked off with an easy par. The only real danger that remained was the difficult 18th hole, but Spieth made it look easy by hammering a drive up the left side of the fairway. On his way up the hill, he ducked under the rope line and made a beeline for the bathroom, slipping into the crowd seemingly unnoticed. When he emerged a minute later, he jogged by a crowded concessions stand, two Masters security guards hustling to keep up and clear a path for him back to the fairway, but it was too crowded to be inconspicuous.

“Holy s—, it’s Jordan!” one patron bellowed.

Again and again, people seemed stunned as they realized it was actually Spieth darting among them, charging up the hill. You can almost imagine the players on the leaderboard having the same reaction.

Buckle up, boys. Here comes Jordan Spieth.

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