AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — Go ahead and measure the kid for a green jacket. Soon they may be crowning him as the best player in golf.
The Masters isn’t supposed to begin until the back nine on Sunday. Jordan Spieth all but wrapped it up before the mowers came out Saturday night.
Forget the unfortunate mess he made on the 17th hole to trim his lead to four shots. Ignore the iron shot he pushed way right on No. 18 that nearly cost him another shot.
Look instead at the brilliant flop shot he hit to recover from a place no player ever wants to be. Watch again the 10-footer he rolled confidently in the cup for a clue how he’ll react if things suddenly start to get tough.
“That just took some guts,” Spieth said.
The kid isn’t just calm, he’s unflappable. Kind of like another 21-year-old who set some records of his own here with a breakthrough win in 1997.
The comparisons to Tiger Woods are inevitable, at least when it comes to scoring low on Augusta National. And there’s reason to believe that he, like Woods, has figured out how to play with a lead when the greatest prize in golf is on the line.
Behind him is an all-star collection of talent bent on taking him down, including three-time champion Phil Mickelson. Ahead of him is a chance to make history by breaking the scoring record set by Woods in 1997.
And all around him on Sunday will be the roars that echo across Augusta National like no other golf course.
“Especially in the group in front of us,” Spieth said. “Everyone loves Phil. Why wouldn’t you love Phil? And he’s going to make some noise and he’s going to make a run.”
Still, it doesn’t seem there are enough mistakes left in Spieth to make things interesting in the final round. Even on a course ripe for the taking, you don’t get the sense that he will be taken, too.
Remember that Spieth was right there in his first Masters last year, when he had the lead by two shots on Sunday only to lose to Bubba Watson. He’s not going to be intimidated by the names behind him, just like he wasn’t Saturday when he made seven birdies on his way to a 2 under 70.
And if he does get into a spot of trouble, Spieth showed on the 18th hole that he’s got some serious short game under pressure. From a hill to the right of the green he played a risky full flop shot that landed gently and stayed within makeable distance.
It could have been as disastrous as the double bogey he made the hole before. Spieth not only pulled it off, but did it at a time when anything but perfection might have been disastrous.
“I don’t recommend ever hitting it there,” Spieth said. “That wasn’t easy. It was kind of maybe one in five (chance), if you make a putt.”
Spieth came to the Masters in the midst of a remarkable run of golf — including one win and two second place finishes in his last three events. Not a terribly long hitter by today’s standards, he’s precise with his irons and is arguably the best putter on earth.
That’s a good combination on Augusta National, especially this year when rain has kept the course soft and almost every flagstick is accessible.
“What I learned about myself is that I saw a lot of putts go in today,” Spieth said. “That’s something in the weekend under pressure that’s kind of hurt me a little bit and recently I’ve been making a lot of putts. The downside of it was that I had to make a lot of putts today with five dropped shots, and I’m not going to be able to have that (on Sunday). I can’t rely on the putter that much to save me with two major champions right behind.”
That would be Mickelson and Justin Rose, who can both claim experience winning majors that Spieth lacks. Mickelson in particular would seem his biggest threat, though he will be starting from five shots back.
Mickelson said he would be wearing black because it helps remind him to stay aggressive. Spieth plans to be aggressive, too, but he’ll be relying on some other motivation.
“Last year definitely left a bad taste in my mouth,” Spieth said. “I’ve been looking to get back, looking at trying to get some revenge on the year. I’ve got a long way to go still.”
Not that long, actually. Eighteen more holes, to be exact, in what has already been a record-setting week.
No better way for the kid to cap it off than with his first green jacket.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg
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