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Trying to play it safe, Jordan Spieth plays his way into a historic collapse at the Masters

Trying to play it safe, Jordan Spieth plays his way into a historic collapse at the Masters
Jordan Spieth gets a pat on the back from caddie Michael Greller on the 18th hole after finishing second at the Masters. (Harry How / Getty Images)

It was chilly enough to make bare knees knock. Parkas were buttoned. Blankets were spread. Shadows rode in on the breeze.

"I said, 'Buddy, it looks like we're collapsing,'" said Jordan Spieth.

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A car alarm blared in the distance. Deep groans echoed off the pines. Sunburned men rattled their empty plastic beer cups, quietly nudged each other's attention to the leaderboard, and whistled through their teeth.

"It just kind of stunk to watch it," said Smylie Kaufman.

There were nine holes left in the Masters on Sunday afternoon and it was over. Spieth had a five-stroke lead in a tournament he had owned for two years. He already had one green jacket. The other guys on the leaderboard had none. This wasn't a competition, it was a coronation.

"It went from an incredible performance to a mixture of disaster and torture," said Nick Faldo.

Making the turn, Spieth bogeyed one hole. Bogeyed the next hole. Then, on the next hole he was facing 155 yards over water. That was the shot. Hit the ball over a slice of water that didn't even qualify as a lake or pond, but a creek, Rae's Creek. Keep the ball dry and end the skid and stride toward history.

"I didn't take that deep extra breath," Spieth said.

The kid rushed. The kid splashed. The kid drowned. He dunked his ball in the creek not once, but twice. He turned golf's grandest stage into a morning at the muni. He scored a seven on the par-three 12th hole. It's called a quadruple bogey. It looked four times that bad. And he was done, the biggest collapse in this 80-year-old tournament occurring in about 15 minutes.

"Big picture, this one will hurt," Spieth said.

Historical picture, the Masters was won by Danny Willett, a 28-year-old Englishman with no PGA Tour wins, four European Tour wins, and the great fortune to be playing decently when Spieth's nightmare fell into his lap. Willett shot five under par for the round and the tournament, finishing three strokes better than Spieth and Lee Westwood.

"It's all a bit surreal," Willett said.

Realistic picture, this was about how golf's brutally unforgiving nature can claim the heart of the even most prodigious of athletes even as he is dominating the most picturesque of events. For three days here Spieth was a 22-year-old savant. Then suddenly he was just, well, a 22-year-old.

"I was absolutely shocked," said Jason Day.

Everyone was quick to compare this to Greg Norman's collapse to Faldo in 1996, but there really is no comparison. Norman was leading by six at the beginning of the final round, but was leading by only two after nine holes. This collapse was more than twice as bad in a fraction of the time.

"I'm sure he's killing himself for it," Day said.

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He was killing this golf course entering the back nine, so much that the fans abandoned the hopeless pursuers, crowded toward the final holes and waited to honor the boy king.

"Jordan was in absolute control; walking to the tee was like a procession to his second green jacket," Faldo said.

But once he began the back nine, he admitted that he decided to play it safe, and the safe play strangled him.

This golf course is about touch and nerve, and when one of them goes, you're in trouble.


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Jordan Spieth gathers his thoughts on the 18th green before finishing the final round with a one-over 73.
Jordan Spieth gathers his thoughts on the 18th green before finishing the final round with a one-over 73. (Brant Sanderlin / Atlanta Journal Constitution)

"I knew par was good enough and maybe that's what hurt me . . . just wasn't quite aggressive," Spieth said.

Even the two bogeys didn't have to be game-changers, but suddenly he became distracted, distressed, and couldn't get the ball over that darn water.

"This golf course is about touch and nerve, and when one of them goes, you're in trouble," Faldo said.

For Spieth, they both departed at once, leaving him muttering to himself, gesturing in confusion toward caddie Michael Greller and nervously flexing his suddenly hostile clubs in his hands, again and again.

"Just a lapse of concentration," Spieth said.

He came back to birdie two of the next three holes, and had a chance to flip the entire narrative after landing his tee shot within six feet at No. 16. But he ran his birdie putt past the hole, killing any chance of a comeback, at which point many in the crowd turned their backs with audible sighs.

"Wow," some whispered.

Spieth's trademark march became a trudge. While traversing the final two fairways he stared aimlessly at the ground. Near the 18th green he stopped and crouched for the longest minute, just crouched and hung his head. When he finished the round he tossed his ball sideways into the crowd as if discarding a piece of lint, and then walked briskly down toward the scorer's cabin, stopping only to politely ask a cameraman to please get out of his face.

His pain was so great, it was visibly felt in another state by another sports superstar. When word of the collapse reached Spieth's friend Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors before a game in San Antonio, he reportedly dropped to the gym floor in agony.

"We're all in disbelief," Faldo said.

But just as Spieth learned a lesson on this darkest of Sundays, he also taught one, on how to handle defeat with grace.

In keeping with Masters tradition, as the previous year's winner he had to place the green jacket on winner Willett in Butler Cabin. Never before in Masters history has a defending champion had to rebound from such misfortune to put on such a smiling face. In any other sport, there's a chance that a former champion in a such a dire situation would disappear.

But Spieth showed up. He lost his balance and nearly fell while putting the jacket on Willett, but he showed up. He later looked like he was going to be sick as he walked outside to attend the jacket ceremony, but he showed up.

"As you can imagine, I can't think of anybody else who may have had a tougher ceremony to experience," he said.

As Spieth finished answering questions outside the clubhouse early Sunday evening, the wind picked up and the chill deepened. Wearing no jacket, he shuddered once and walked away.

Twitter: @billplaschke

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