What looked like a sturdy padlock turned out to be as fleeting as a soap bubble.
When Jordan Spieth birdied the ninth hole Sunday afternoon, extending his final-round lead in the Masters to five strokes, he was in superb position to win his second consecutive Green Jacket and join Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods as the only golfers with back-to-back victories at Augusta National.
Instead, the second nine — well known as a crucible of highs and lows — became the latter for Spieth, who lost the lead after a quadruple-bogey 7 on the par-3 12th hole and lost the Tournament by three strokes to Englishman Danny Willett.
Spieth already has established himself as one of the most precocious young golfers ever by winning the first two majors of 2015 and very nearly the third, but joining the elite threesome of successful Masters defending champions will have to wait.
It was dramatic. It was painful. It was golf at its most wicked, when a player — even one as gifted and cool-headed as the 22-year-old Spieth — can’t do anything right after having done almost nothing wrong.
“It was really a very tough 30 minutes for me that hopefully I never experience again,” said Spieth, who arrived at the tricky 12th having bogeyed Nos. 10 and 11, losing the draft of four straight birdies to close the first nine.
Some of golf’s greatest champions have been through coronations that morphed into collapses, and on a cool, partly cloudy afternoon, it was Spieth’s turn.
Spieth had led the Masters for seven consecutive rounds, including the first three this week, when, after a sterling 66 in the first round, his ball-striking left him at times in the second and third rounds. His three double-bogeys through 54 holes matched the most by anyone who had won a Masters (Craig Stadler, 1982).
If Spieth had gotten through No. 12 Sunday with a double bogey, he still might have escaped with a victory. But his mistake-filled journey through the middle of Amen Corner was much worse.
His lead already whittled after going 5-5 to start the second nine, Spieth stepped up to the 12th tee with the intent of hitting a conservative shot to the fat of the shallow green. Echoing what had happened in 2014 — when Spieth’s chances of winning the Masters in his first attempt went away with a poor shot into Rae’s Creek — he made a blunder.
Spieth’s 9-iron shot landed short of the green on the right and rolled back into the water. “I knew those two bogeys weren't going to hurt me,” Spieth said. “But I didn't take that extra deep breath and really focus on my line on 12. Instead, I went up and I just put a quick swing on it.”
Just as he did two years ago, Spieth knew the prudent play was the proper play. He knew he should listen to his caddie, Michael Greller’s direction. But he couldn’t resist temptation.
“Michael said, ‘Hit it right here, hit it right here,’” Spieth said. “And I remember getting over the ball thinking, ‘I'm going to go ahead and hit a little cut to the hole.’ And that's what I did in 2014, and it cost me the tournament then, too.”
From there, instead of going to the designated drop zone, he chose a spot about 80 yards from the flagstick for his third shot. He hit behind the ball badly with his wedge, the shot barely making it into Rae’s Creek.
As the ripples from that error were dissipating, Spieth’s fifth shot flew the green and went into the back bunker. Spieth walked off with a 7, trailing Willett.
Spieth fought back. On the par-5 13th, he faced a tricky chip after watching his playing partner, Smylie Kaufman, hit a shot from a similar spot into the water. Spieth chipped deftly and sank the six-footer for birdie.
Unable to go for the green in two at the par-5 15th, Spieth hit a 90-yard wedge to six feet and made another birdie to pull within two of Willett.
Spieth struck a fine tee shot at the par-3 16th but was faced with a delicate, downhill eight-footer and failed to make it. Rather than a must-have birdie on No. 17 to keep his hopes alive, Spieth hit a bad tee shot and bogeyed. There would be no short-game magic like there had been earlier in the day on No. 4, where he showed off his scrambling genius once more by getting up and down from well right of the green.
“It was really a very tough 30 minutes for me that hopefully I never experience again.” - Jordan Spieth
It was a weekend when Spieth said he had a “B-minus game tee to green,” putting more pressure on his putter. Breaking with his custom of going without his swing coach, Cameron McCormick, on the weekends, Spieth agreed to have McCormick return to help him straighten out his ballstriking.
Playing the 18th hole for pride instead of what he had wanted, Spieth crouched for a spell in the fairway that had been an avenue to a dream fulfilled last spring. This time, it was an uphill walk to complete a round that had gone downhill fast after what Spieth called a “dream-come-true” first nine.
Rather than slipping into a Green Jacket, Spieth helped Willett into one.
“Big picture, this one will hurt,” Spieth said. “It will take a while.”