The drive home from Augusta National was quiet, a rarity when Jordan Spieth is in the car.
He was wearing a blue shirt, not a green jacket.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Only three hours earlier on Sunday at the Masters, he was coming off four straight birdies and stood on the 10th tee with a five-shot lead. No one who had won a major was remotely close to Spieth.
Three holes later, his head was spinning. A shot in the bunker (No. 10). A shot in the trees (No. 11). Two in the water (No. 12). And just like that, Spieth was three shots behind and never caught up. He was in Butler Cabin, just like everyone expected, only he was there to help Danny Willett into a green jacket.
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What could anyone say?
“Everybody waited,” Spieth said. “It was just quiet while we drove home. I wasn’t doing too well at the start because it was so recent. It was like: ‘Why couldn’t I have just done this or done that? Why did this have to happen?' I was trying to figure out why. That was my whole thing that night. Why didn’t it work when I was in the same position the year before.”
A year later, he still doesn’t have the answers, and it already is weighing on him.
Two weeks before he was due to arrive at Augusta, Spieth said he couldn’t wait for this particular Masters to be over. There is no escaping the questions about what happened last year. He didn’t have answers during that drive home. He doesn’t have them now.
“Whether I can grab the jacket back or I miss the cut or I finish 30th, it will be nice having this Masters go by,” he said. “The Masters lives on for a year. It brings a non-golf audience into golf. And it will be nice once this year’s finished from my point of view, to be brutally honest with you.”
Spieth already has returned to the scene of his worst moment in golf.
He was at Augusta National last December with two members when he stepped on the 12th tee for the first time since the final round of the Masters. He hit 8-iron over the bunker to 15 feet. He made the putt. “I was walking around with my hands up like, ‘Demons gone,’ ” he said.
If only it were that simple.
He still has to face the media on Tuesday. He goes to the Tuesday night dinner for Masters champions that Willett, not Spieth, will be hosting.
“This hopefully will end Thursday when he gets to the 12th hole,” three-time Masters champion Nick Faldo said. “He'll get up there, know what he did wrong. He knows how to deal with it. Hopefully, he stands up there and says, ‘Right, nice swing, put it in the right spot.’ And I think that will be big.”
Spieth is not the only player to suffer an inexplicable collapse in a major.
Adam Scott had a four-shot lead with four holes to play, made four bogeys and lost the 2012 British Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. He won his first major nine months later at Augusta National. Jason Dufner had a five-shot lead on the 15th tee of the 2011 PGA Championship and lost in a playoff to Keegan Bradley.
“Things can change quickly out here,” Dufner said. “One bad break, one bad situation and your head can get spinning. But he (Spieth) is in a totally different situation from me. He’s one of the best players in the world. He'll be fine heading into the Masters.”
The Masters has served up its share of players who left with one arm in a green jacket. Greg Norman in 1996 lost a six-shot lead, still the largest ever blown in PGA Tour history. Ed Sneed made bogey on his last three holes in 1979 and lost in a playoff. Not to be overlooked is Rory McIlroy, who had a four-shot lead in 2011 and shot 43 on the back nine, starting with a tee shot on No. 10 behind the cabins that led to a triple bogey.
Spieth still has a green jacket, a spot upstairs in the Champions Locker Room, a seat at the table Tuesday night for dinner. Even so, bad memories don’t fade easily, especially at the Masters.
“No matter what happens this year, those questions will still be there and linger a little bit,” McIlroy said. “I still get questioned about the back nine at Augusta in 2011. It’s just something you have to deal with. It’s something that happened. It’s not going to go away. It’s there and it always will be. Of course, I sympathize with him. The guy had a chance to win the green jacket. But he can console himself by opening up his wardrobe and seeing one hanging there.”
In the days after the Masters, Spieth would switch off the TV whenever he saw footage of him on the 12th hole. He went to Las Vegas with a group of friends from high school, and that was good.
When he returned to The Players Championship a month later, he knew what kind of questions to expect.
If he got into contention, would he be thinking about Sunday at the Masters? If he didn’t play well, how tough would it be to get over the Masters?
It never goes away.
His biggest test was in February, when Spieth took a six-shot lead into the final round at Pebble Beach. Not since the Masters had a tournament been his to lose. He never let anyone get closer than three shots. He never made anything worse than a par.
Is this year’s Masters the ultimate test?
It wouldn’t seem to be the case. Forgotten is the fact that Spieth has never finished worse than runner-up in three appearances, or that he shares the 72-hole scoring record at the Masters with Tiger Woods. But for now, the freshest memory is the back nine a year ago Sunday. “I think it’s human nature to focus on the negative (more) than the positive, because I think of the positive as if it was supposed to happen,” Spieth said. “And the negative was just crazy.”
Masters at a glance
Tournament: The 81st Masters.
When/where: April 6-9 at Augusta National Golf Club.
Length: 7,435 yards.
Purse: To be determined ($10 million in 2016).
Field: 93 (88 professionals, five amateurs).
Cut: Top 50 and ties, and anyone within 10 shots of the lead.
Defending champion: Danny Willett.
Noteworthy: Mark O'Meara, 60, is the oldest player in the field.
Quoteworthy: “You have to play 72 great holes at Augusta. There’s no shot on that golf course where you can switch off.” – Three-time champion Nick Faldo.
TV: Thursday and Friday, 2-6:30 p.m., ESPN; Saturday, 2-6 p.m., CBS Sports; Sunday, 1-6 p.m., CBS Sports. Interactive: www.masters.com . Live video channels from Amen Corner, the 15th hole, 16th hole and a featured group. Estimated times – Amen Corner (Nos. 11, 12 and 13) from 9:45 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday and Friday, and from 10:45 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday; Nos. 15 and 16 from 10:45 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Thursday and Friday, and from 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, featured group from noon to completion of play on Thursday and Friday, and from 11:30 a.m. to completion of play on Saturday and Sunday.