Pretty as Augusta is, warm as the locals are, sometimes the best one can hope for is to get round it with one’s dignity intact. On Friday that famous southern hospitality did not extend so far as the pin placements, which were merciless. And with the wind swirling and gusting as it was, most of the players were too busy trying to survive 18 holes to worry too much about making many birdies and eagles. That applied even to Jordan Spieth, who is so comfortable around here that the course’s swales and tumps are as familiar to him as the grooves and lumps in his favourite old sofa.
Spieth had been six under after the first round, and two clear of the field, the very same lead he had here in 2016. That year he held it right through until Amen Corner on Sunday afternoon. This time his lead vanished on the 1st green. Spieth sliced his opening drive wild right, beyond the back of the crowd, thick as it was. Once he had politely asked the gallery to clear out, “back, back, way, way back”, he was surprised to find that he still had a line through to the green. “Look at that, I actually have a clear shot.” And so he did, only it was on an upslope and tight beneath the overhanging trees.
Spieth’s caddie, Michael Greller, was not convinced: “I’d say that shot’s got to get really lucky.” But Spieth had made up his mind. “Just so long as I keep it low.” It did not go but stopped some 90 yards shy, on the fairway’s edge. Then he mishit his iron in and missed a two-foot putt to begin with a double bogey. And it did not get any better on the 2nd, where he pulled his drive left, rushed a messy second, then missed a 5ft putt for birdie and a 4ft putt for par, making three dropped shots in two holes. So far as starts to the day go this was cold coffee and burnt toast.
The difference between Spieth now and the player who won here when he led wire-to-wire in 2015 is that he is a little less sure with his putter. He is ranked 185th on the PGA tour for strokes gained in putting this season, which is one of the reasons why he missed the cut in tournaments in Phoenix and Tampa Bay. He put it down to a bad bout of glandular fever last December, which threw off his preparation for the season. He thought he had got his touch back in Houston last week but it seems he lost it again somewhere in Augusta on Thursday night.
Spieth is as tough as they come, though, and set himself to the dirty work of grinding his way through the rest of the day. “I’ve taken a lot of punches on this golf course,” he said later. So he knows how to wear them. He came through the next four holes in level par, with barely even a sniff of a birdie. But then he dropped another shot at the 7th after he made a mess of an overambitious approach, which plopped down in the front left bunker. He blasted out far too hard – “C’mon,” he cried when he saw where his ball had fetched up – and took another two putts coming back.
By now Spieth’s putter was so cold he must have had trouble peeling his fingers off it. He missed a tiddly birdie putt on the par-five 8th, then scrambled out of trouble at the 9th with a deft two-putt which he said felt like an up-and-down. It meant he covered the front nine in 40, four over.
The worst round he has ever had at the Masters was a three-over 75. So he had some work to do if he was going to match that. It was credit to him that, instead of slipping further down the field, he hung on by his fingernails round Amen Corner, even though he hit his tee shots into the trees at the 11th and 13th.
The back half of the 13th was actually the start of Spieth’s rally. He picked up a shot there, after hitting a brilliant four iron in. Then at the par-five 15th, glory be, he made a good putt from 13ft for another birdie. So, all of a sudden, he was right alongside Rory McIlroy again, tied in third. It seemed as if Spieth was right up on the brink after those first two holes, teetering, almost toppling. But now he had found his balance again. At the 18th he even played his best shot of the day, a 140-yard conjuring trick from right down in the fairway bunker, that curled around to 9ft from the hole. He missed the putt, so finished two over for the day, four under for the tournament. He will hope that is the worst of it done with for the week.