Leaners

(Curtis Compton/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)

Saturday at The Masters, on the Eighth hole of his third round, Jordan Spieth, the tournament leader, hit a weak three-wood flare off the tee. The ball didn’t travel very far, and Spieth’s pass at it, which concluded with an excess of upward, rightward tilt, looked defensive. Or at least uncommitted. But as he had done so often this week (and last year) at Augusta, Spieth followed poor shots with good ones—in this case two cleanly struck irons and a made short putt. He birdied the Eighth, increasing his lead over his playing partner, Rory McIlroy, who disappointed on the Saturday stage, and the rest of the field, who for the seventh consecutive Masters round saw Spieth’s name engraved atop the leaderboard. I marked the hole ‘conservative birdie; leaner off tee’ and noted that McIlroy, even when struggling, strides like a show horse, and that Spieth, even when playing well, walks as if pursued by trouble.

Into the back nine on Saturday Spieth continued holing mid-range puts, which in major competition he now does better than anyone, and managing the course in his steady, patient way, but a growing number of his full-swing shots were not flush. I was marking a lot of leaners: on the Eleventh, where he made double bogey; the lay-up on Thirteen; the tee shot on Sixteen, which took a favorable bounce; and the tee shot on Seventeen, which didn’t. These misses were all of a kind. The contact was thin or otherwise impure as the club couldn’t catch up with Spieth’s rushed upper-body move, and each shot ended up short right. As misses go, short right isn’t the worst. But we saw on Seventeen, which Spieth bogeyed, and once more on Eighteen, which he doubled after finding the trees off the tee, again short right, that a collection of mishits can’t be totally hidden on the score card no matter how well you’re putting. What might’ve been a four-stroke lead heading into Sunday was, after some cautious, prevent D-esque play on the last hole Saturday, reduced to a single shot.

A lead nonetheless, though, and for Spieth that’s proven sufficient. His late stumble Saturday encouraged those players clustered around even par—Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Justin Rose, Lee Westwood and, we now know, Danny Willett—and perhaps emboldened Smylie Kaufman, who trailed by one at the start of final round, and Bernhard Langer, who at the age of fifty-eight had shaken off his ornamental player status and positioned himself for a Sunday run. There were secondary storylines like these for the CBS commentariat to entertain, but by the turn on Sunday, Spieth had built a five-shot advantage and, with the flags undisturbed by the kind of wind that upset many rounds Friday and Saturday, did not appear beatable. I marked more leaners and flares—tee shot on Three, which inspired a series of corrective mime swings; tee shot on Four, a massive rightward miss that Spieth twice directed to “stay in play!” while the ball was in the air—but tracking the mistakes began to feel like minor work, like counting cleat marks on those pristine greens. Swing by swing Spieth did not look dominant (often he didn’t look competitive), and yet he was continuing to put scoring distance between himself and the field. Historic stuff. Spieth would be the first Masters winner since Tiger Woods to defend the title. The back nine Sunday was going to be birdsong of questionable origin, flowers coached to ideal bloom, and Jordan Spieth reclaiming the Green Jacket.

We still thought this after he bogeyed Number Ten (second shot: flare that found the bunker short right) and followed that with another bogey on eleven (lots of bogeys on that hole over the years, no big deal). These dropped shots did, however, oblige CBS to feature more of the field’s play, and so before Spieth made quadruple bogey on number twelve and relinquished his hard-fought, sixty-five-hole lead, we the viewers were aware, vaguely, that Danny Willett was making birdies, Dustin Johnson was striping drivers, and Lee Westwood was finding the little nuggets of majors luck he’s been searching for his entire career.

Spieth’s quadruple on Twelve is, as we expected, being described as a choke. A meltdown moment, a public collapse. And maybe it was, given the severity of the serial mistakes he made there. Or maybe his tee ball on Twelve, which found the water short right, was simply the brightest shining star in a constellation of mishits reaching back to his Eighth hole on Saturday—but really to Friday, if we’re being honest, when Colin Montgomerie called Spieth’s tee shot on the Sixteenth hole “basically a shank.”

His Sunday waterball (the first one) wasn’t a shank—the shot flew forward-ish for a bit—but it never threatened the green. Here was the same attenuated, unsure, swing we’d seen for more than two rounds, only this time the leaner didn’t find a bunker or false front. It found Rae’s Creek.

***

We have to give Danny Willett credit. The guy shot 67 on Sunday at Augusta. That’s a round. And it meant the Spieth would’ve had to break par just to tie Willett overall, which, from what I hear, is not so easy at The Masters. Given the way Spieth was striking the ball, 71 or better looked like a reach; but when you factor in his stellar short game, 71 seemed high.

In the end he carded a 73, good for T-2 and an $880,000 payout. Walking up the last hole Spieth knew he’d be placing the green jacket on Willett, but, with the class we’ve come to expect from the twenty-two year-old, he removed his cap, neatened his thinning hair and absorbed the patrons’ saddened ovation. We the viewers also knew Willett had won, although we still weren’t sure exactly how, even as the highlight loop of his back nine played between celebratory footage inside Butler Cabin. “I don’t quite know what to do,” he said as he waited for Spieth to putt out on Eighteen. We didn’t either.

Last year Jordan Spieth won the kind of Masters we’re most familiar with, which I think of as a confectionary Masters. The early spring weather was agreeable and the players played in short sleeves, the fragile putting surfaces at Augusta National were receptive to well-struck shots, and the final nine holes on Sunday were contested in dramatic shadow. This year the flowers looked nice again, and the birds sounded cheerful, but the wind blew hard on Friday and Saturday, firming up the greens and diminishing players’ landing areas on them, and the ball, in unseasonably cool air, carried less. The 2016 contest was a sweater Masters, and Spieth, for sixty-five holes, looked like he knew how to win that kind, too, until Number Twelve. There on the steep bank the accumulation of a tournament’s worth of short right misses rolled off into the creek.

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Lee Ellis’s work has appeared in The Believer, Lucky Peach and newyorker.com.