AUGUSTA, Ga. — It was agonizing to watch — imagine how it must have felt for poor Jordan Spieth.
With nine holes to play, the 22-year-old was imperious, imperturbable, and in pole position for a second straight Masters title.
In the space of 40 minutes, he looked stunned, vulnerable and alone.
Spieth’s quickfire Masters collapse — up there with some of the game’s biggest disasters — illustrated golf’s capacity to expose a player’s soul.
To rub salt into a raw wound, he had to help England’s Danny Willett into his green jacket. Twice. First at the traditional Butler Cabin ceremony and again on the lawns behind the clubhouse.
“I can’t think of anybody else who may have had a tougher ceremony to experience,” the world No. 2 told reporters afterward.
Spieth had led the Masters for seven rounds stretching back to the start of his stunning victory last season.
Four straight birdies had taken him to the 10th tee with a five-shot lead and seemingly set to become the first player to win back-to-back Masters wire to wire.
A bogey followed, then another. No matter. Still clear.
On the infamous short 12th, with Rae’s Creek guarding the green, his tee shot flew high, right, caught the bank and sank into the water.
“I didn’t take that extra deep breath and really focus on my line on 12,” he said. “Instead I went up and I just put a quick swing on it.”
Spieth’s inaugural Masters win, backed up by victory in the following U.S. Open, showed a clinical and ice-cool professional in command of his game and his mind.
That he dunked one in the water Sunday showed a chink in the armor. What happened next stripped the armor right away, like peeling a banana.
He chose to take a drop 80 yards out — he could have gone back to the tee — but his third shot was a heavy chunk back into the water. Dropping again, he found the back bunker and ran up a quadruple-bogey seven to finally lose the lead.
“Boy, you wonder about not only just the tee shot on 12, but why can’t you just control the second shot, you know, and make five at worse, and you’re still tied for the lead,” he said.
“I can’t imagine that was fun for anyone to experience, other than maybe Danny’s team and those who are fans of him.
“Big picture: This one will hurt. It will take a while.”
Big picture — this was a bigger shock than Greg Norman’s infamous Masters collapse in 1996 when he squandered a six-shot lead heading into the final round to lose by five to Nick Faldo.
It also eclipsed Rory McIlroy’s 2011 meltdown when he blew a four-shot lead with a final-round 80 at Augusta. And it arguably outstripped Adam Scott’s British Open disaster when he gifted a four-shot lead with four to play to Ernie Els at Royal Lytham in 2012.
Perhaps only Jean van de Velde’s 1999 British Open catastrophe — when he led by three on the 18th tee before blowing his chances in Carnoustie’s Barry Burn — ranks worse.
Even as he was unraveling, Spieth had the awareness to discuss the situation with his caddy Michael Greller.
“At one point I told Mike, ‘Buddy, it seems like we’re collapsing,'” he 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.”
‘One bad swing’
In his defense, Spieth had struggled with his swing all tournament, describing his game from tee to green as “B-minus,” saved by a red-hot putter. As an emergency sticking plaster, his coach Cameron McCormick flew back to Augusta ahead of the final round.
“He was fighting his game all week,” American John Cook, who lost the British Open lead with two holes to play to Faldo in 1992, told the Golf Channel. “When he really needed that golf swing down the stretch it abandoned him.”
To his credit, Spieth was able to wrest back some control.
He birdied the par-five 13th and picked up another shot at the long 15th — a thread of hope for a comeback more remarkable than the combustion.
“There’s no ‘give up’ in us,” Spieth said. “We tried, but it just was one bad swing.”
Golf has seen myriad meltdowns over the years. Some players sink, some swim again. McIlroy bounced back to win the U.S. Open in the next major following his Masters disaster, and said one paved the way for the other.
Scott also turned a negative into a positive and won the Masters the year after his British blow. On the other hand, Norman was haunted and was never quite the same again.
“In ’96 you got the sense that Greg was struggling, but it was bit by bit,” Faldo was quoted as saying by the BBC. “What happened to Jordan was so sudden, just bam. It was 10 minutes of golf. That’s the harshness of it.
“This will scar him. This will damage him for a while.”
Sports psychologist Dr. Gio Valiante believes Spieth is well equipped to recover from his loss, particularly as he already has a green jacket.
“We all have to accumulate scar tissue in this game. Nobody gets out unscathed,” Vailante told the Golf Channel.
“We’re all predesigned to beat ourselves up, but if he can under-react and subdue his emotion it may not be as bad.”