Jordan Spieth was a 20-year-old with a 30-year-old head on his shoulders when he first played the Masters and nearly won until Bubba Watson rallied over the last 11 holes to beat him.
Now he’s a 27-year-old who has reason to feel much younger.
It’s amazing what winning can do in golf, and the timing was never better for Spieth. He had gone 82 starts dating to the summer of 2017 since his last victory at the British Open, a slump so severe that even Spieth began to question if he would get back.
He answered that at the Texas Open with a two-shot victory that sent him to Augusta National with belief he’s headed down the right road and the hardware to prove it.
“It’s actually been a lot easier for me over the last 12 hours to just look forward versus looking back, I guess. That’s exciting,” he said.
Spieth arrived at midday as the first full day of practice was in full swing on an Augusta National course that was far different from when the world’s best players were there five months ago for the pandemic-postponed Masters in November.
The azaleas were blazing. The greens already had that shine on them from an abundance of warm sunshine. The course is firm.
Billy Horschel realized that on the 15th hole when his second attempt to reach the green cleared the water and landed safely on the front portion of the green. Or so he thought. After he took 15 steps, the ball had trickled to the front. And a few seconds later, it had rolled all the way back into the water.
Dustin Johnson won in November at a record 20-under par, a record that Patrick Cantlay believes will be “pretty safe for many years to come.”
“This week, I expect it to get really firm and fast, and I think that’s when this golf course shines,” Cantlay said.
Spieth seems to play it well in any condition. A year after he was runner-up in his 2014 debut, he went wire-to-wire to win by four. He was runner-up the following year – the infamous meltdown on the back nine when he lost a five-shot lead – and finished third in 2018.
And now he is moving closer, though still not there, to the player who reached had three legs of the career Grand Slam before he turned 24.
It hasn’t been easy. Spieth attributed his fall to a combination of injury and ignorance, one being a bone chip is his left hand early in 2018, the other working on the wrong mechanics that sent him further away from where he needed to be.
He said he thought about a discussion he had with Tiger Woods about the two approaches to the game. On one end of the spectrum is a player who doesn’t clutter his mind with thoughts and just plays. Someone like Johnson would occupy that territory, and Spieth once did.
“On the other side, you have an astute knowledge of exactly what you do well, why you do it and how to continue to do that,” Spieth said recently. “Anywhere in the middle is tough. You don’t know enough but you’re overthinking a little more than it should. I feel like it took me awhile to cross that barrier to the other side.
“And once you go some of the way, you can’t go back.”
He now believes he knows enough about what he’s doing and why that he is almost back to where he wants to be, without having arrived. He wasn’t in total control at the Texas Open, but enough felt right that he won.
It got the attention in Las Vegas, where Westgate Superbook offered odds of 14-1 at the Masters. After his win, Spieth is at 10-1, trailing only Johnson as betting favourites.
He called that victory “monumental” during his television interview immediately after he won, and later joked that was an “aggressive” choice of words.
It was important because it had been too long since he last won, and because he could sense expectations rising each time he went into the final round with a shot at winning. Spieth doesn’t pay much attention to what gets said or written about him, but he is savvy enough to get a sense of it by the questions he gets.
He expected more emotions – he felt it only when he saw his wife, Annie – but instead it felt normal. That turned out to be a good sign, too.
“It felt more normal, that it felt like me and that’s where I’m supposed to be and this is who I am,” Spieth said.
He said he was considered older than his 20 years when he first came to the Masters because of the decisions he made. Now at 27, he thought about Phil Mickelson not winning his first major until he was 33, and Brooks Koepka winning the first of his four majors at 27.
“A lot of people’s careers get started at 27 in this sport. So there’s a lot of ways to look at it,” he said. “I like the progress that I’m making. … I’m going to work at trying to just be a little bit better than I was last week.”
History is not necessarily on his side. Only four Masters champions won the week before, the last one Mickelslon in 2006.