Augusta National’s dining room chairs don’t lack for comfort. Thick green cushions with a sturdy back and wide wooden armrests.
Jordan Spieth sat awkwardly in one, graciously listening while Danny Willett delivered his victory speech after he slipped the green jacket on the Englishman’s shoulders and adjusted the collar for him. Men have looked more comfortable in electric chairs than Spieth did trying to keep a brave face while he agonized in front of the world.
“As you can imagine, I can’t think of anybody else who may have had a tougher ceremony to experience,” Spieth said. “Obviously happy for Danny. More important than golf, he’s had a lot of really cool things happen in his life. Like he said, maybe fate had it this time for him. I certainly wanted to control fate myself. But it was very tough given that it’s so soon after the finish, and it was tough, but I thought that he handled it with extreme class. And I felt that I stood up there and smiled like I should, and appreciated everybody who makes this great tournament possible.”
The only man in the world who could truly empathize with Spieth shares a champion’s locker with him at Augusta. In both 1959 and ’61, Arnold Palmer had arms already halfway down the sleeves of his own green jackets. In 1959, he blew a five-shot lead on the second nine, starting with a triple bogey on No. 12, as Art Wall surged past him. In ’61, he walked up the 18th fairway poised again to become the first player to ever repeat as Masters winner but got ahead of himself and shook the hand of a friend outside the ropes. The lapse in concentration cost him a closing double bogey, and he ended up draping the green jacket on Gary Player instead.
Spieth certainly looked like a man on his own coronation walk after four consecutive birdies on Nos. 6-9 sent him to the second nine with a commanding five-stroke lead.
“It was a dream-come-true front nine,” he said.
But like so many Masters, fate always waits until Amen Corner. Four days earlier, Spieth walked to the 12th tee to a spine-tingling standing ovation from the patrons as he resumed his place atop the leaderboard with an opening 66.
On Sunday, things turned more funereal. He failed to save par on the 10th from the greenside bunker, and he had 8 feet left for par after laying up 102 yards short from the trees on the 11th. It got so eerily quiet as he studied and stood over the putt, you could hear Rae’s Creek dripping over the dam. He missed and headed to the 12th tee hearing murmurs.
Then came audible gasps as the right shot Spieth had been fighting all week came off his 9-iron on a line that was doomed from the start. When his chunky third shot after his drop followed the first into Rae’s Creek, one man picked up two chairs and slung them over his shoulder.
“I can’t watch this anymore,” he said as he turned and walked away.
It was as painful as it was shocking. Spieth had led the Masters for essentially 129 consecutive holes since his eighth hole in 2015. In a stretch of three holes he went from five up to three down, and his head had to be swimming like Rory McIlroy’s in 2011 when he stepped to the 13th tee.
“At one point I told (caddie) Mike (Greller), I said, ‘Buddy, it seems like we’re collapsing,’” Spieth said. “And I wanted to be brutally honest with the way I felt towards him, so that he could respond with what was necessary to get us to rebound.”
While the focus and pressure abruptly shifted to Willett, Lee Westwood and Dustin Johnson, Spieth never quit. Getting up off the mat like Rocky Balboa, he made birdie at No. 13, just missed at the 14th and added another at No. 15. His shot into the 16th green just rolled by the hole and settled 8 feet from the pin. If he made it, he would have been only one back with two to play. He missed, and a bogey at No. 17 ended it.
Spieth choked up a little as he credited some of his resilience to the support from the galleries.
“It was very, very cool what the patrons here did for me,” he said. “And they almost brought me back into it. I played 13, made birdie. Bad drive on 14, made up for it. Birdied 15, and all of a sudden they believed I could do it and it helped me believe I could do it.
“And I just … the putt … I made a putt last year on 16, I missed one this year. Who knows what happens at the end? Of course we’re going to fight back, you know. There’s no give up in us. We tried, but it just was one bad swing.”
For the third time in three attempts, Spieth believes he should have won the Masters. For the second time, however, he leaves Augusta National gutted and hungry to get back to rectify the record.
“I’m very confident in the way that we play the game of golf,” Spieth said. “I think that when we’re on, I believe that we’re the best in the world. I believe we were the best in the world getting by for the most part this week with what felt uncomfortable over the ball with my iron play. … For me to shoot three over-par rounds in a row after opening up with a 66 – I understand the conditions were tough – but it’s my expectations. I should never shoot two over-par rounds in a row, no matter what the golf course is, even a U.S. Open. So to shoot three on a course where I was under par through nine holes each round, that’s just tough to take away.”
With the grace we’ve come to expect from Spieth, he swallowed his pain and fulfilled his obligations to honor a man who ran off five birdies in the last 13 holes and beat Spieth by eight shots on the back nine.
“He shook my hand like the true gent he is and said, ‘Really well played, awesome play today,’” Willett said. “He’s a class act to be able to hold face and stuff as he did, obviously hurting like I imagine he would be. Just shows the character of the guy that you’re going to have up and around the world No. 1 spot for the next many, many years. Fortunately enough, I’m going to be able to be in that category and playing alongside him.”
Spieth speaks from the heart and doesn’t make excuses or sugarcoat the negatives. As great as he’s been every time he comes to Augusta and was again for 63 holes, he left in shock as a wounded champion. When he returns, he’ll sit again in another dinner chair, possibly eating roast beef and Yorkshire pudding instead of another plate of Texas barbecue.
“Big picture, this one will hurt,” he said. “It will take awhile.”