Weight of history

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Listen to the echoes. They are everywhere at the Masters. The echoes make the Masters the greatest golf tournament in the world. Think of it: The Masters isn’t a championship of anything – it doesn’t even have the word “championship” in its title. The Masters does not have the long history of the Open Championship or U.S. Open; by the time the great Bobby Jones invited some friends to play a little tournament on this stretch of farmland once covered by azaleas and fruit trees, he was already too old to win it.

But the Masters echoes. Everyone knows that the roars reverberate through the pines whenever someone makes a glorious shot … or a calamitous one. But, more, words and feelings and the weight of golf history echo through the years. They say that the Masters does not begin until the back nine on Sunday. This is why. This is when the echoes are the loudest.

“As I stood over the ball,” he said, “my brain seemed to completely shut down. I was suddenly unsure what I should be thinking about.”

Who said that? It could have been Greg Norman in 1996 when he came into the final round with a seemingly insurmountable six-shot lead and then lost his equilibrium and hit disastrous shot after disastrous shot. When it ended, Norman had shot 78 and lost to his rival Nick Faldo by five shots. On the 18th green, after it ended, Norman all but collapsed into Faldo’s arms.

It could have been Ken Venturi in 1956, who started the final day with a four-shot lead but could not make a putt all day. He shot 80 and lost to Jackie Burke. It could have been Scott Hoch, who stood over a 2-foot putt that would have won him the 1989 Masters, backed off it, stepped back over it and then missed it. It could have been Curtis Strange, who led by four shots going into the final nine holes in 1985 and then lost his composure, hitting balls into the water on the 13th and 15th holes. The words could have been said by any of them. But they were not.

“What really tore me up inside,” he said, “was the knowledge that I’d lost because I’d failed … to stay focused until the job is finished.”

Jordan Spieth heard the echoes. He had seemed immune to them just like he had seemed immune to just about every Masters precedent. First-timers are not supposed to play well but in his first Masters Spieth had finished second and led on Sunday. Players are not supposed to go wire-to-wire at the Masters, but Spieth did that last year, breezing to a dominant victory. Players are not supposed to repeat at Augusta, but Spieth led the first three rounds this year and seemed an unstoppable train. Most of all, Augusta National is not supposed to be easy. But Jordan Spieth kept making it look that way.

He did again on Sunday. Spieth came into the day leading by only one shot – this after an unexpected two-hole collapse Saturday evening – but by the time he made the turn his lead was five. Spieth had birdied four holes in a row. “It was a dream-come-true front nine,” he would say.

The trailing players had no reason to hope at that point. Spieth’s resolve had been steel. Even when he plunked his second shot in the sand at No. 10 and made bogey, it did not seem to matter. Even when he hit a wild drive and missed an 8-foot putt at No. 11, it did not seem to matter. Yes an often underestimated British player named Danny Willett, who was only playing at Augusta because his first child was born early, did manage to cut his deficit to one shot. But that seemed a superficial comparison. Spieth still had two par 5s to play and the wind was down. The thing seemed over. Only then Spieth walked to the tee at the 12th hole.

“Instead of seeing nothing around me except the business at hand,” he said. “I suddenly seemed to notice everything around me. The color of the sky. The expectant faces of the people in the gallery. You name it.”

The 12th at Augusta National is probably the most perfect little golf hole ever dug out of the dirt. It is beautiful, of course, with the azaleas and pines and flowering shrubs, with the gorgeous little Hogan’s bridge that arcs over Rae’s Creek. The 12th hole has its own soundtrack, a combination of tinkling piano keys and chirping birds and Jim Nantz’s baritone voice all-but singing “The Masters.”

But what makes the 12th hole utterly perfect is the same thing that makes the Masters perfect: The echoes roar louder there than anyplace else in golf. On most days, this is the most basic of holes. It is only 155 or so yards. It has a fairly big green. On a benign day on any week other than the first week of April, it would seem almost too simple.

But then you add an untrackable wind – even when it’s a fairly light wind, like on Sunday – and then you add the Sunday pressure and then you add the ghosts, all those ghosts – Arnold Palmer in 1959 and Seve Ballesteros in 1982 and Gary Player in 1962 and Norman in 1996 and a man named J.C. Snead in 1973, and on and on and on. All of them lost the golf tournament at the 12th hole, though Snead’s loss was probably the most poignant. He was a former minor league baseball player and fine golfer, an eight-time winner on the PGA Tour. But he was probably best known for being the nephew of the great Sam Snead and for not winning a major. It could have been different. In 1973, he led by two shots coming into the 12th. He plunked his shot in the water and made double bogey. He lost by one shot.

Spieth stepped to the 12th tee, and he still seemed invulnerable to all this Augusta National lore and pressure. He jabbered away with his caddie, Michael Greller, which is always entertaining. What we did not know then, what we could not know then, was that Spieth’s brain was buzzing and sputtering. He was very concerned – let’s even call it too concerned – that he might hit the ball over the green. It’s true that you don’t want to hit the ball over at 12; it leaves a treacherous chip back toward the water. But that’s not the worst thing that can happen.

The worst thing that can happens is exactly what did happen: Spieth addressed the ball while still unsure whether he wanted to draw the ball right to left or fade it left to right. He hit a fade vaguely toward the flag, but he hit it without conviction. The ball died in the air, landed short and bounced back into the water of Rae’s Creek. The shock of the crowd created a heavy silence; several longtime observers said they had never heard the place so quiet.

“That hole, for whatever reason, just has people’s number,” Spieth would say.

Listen to the echoes. “My brain seemed to completely shut down,” he said. Spieth went to tee up his third shot 80 yards from the hole, in the belief that gave him the best angle to the hole. It is unclear if this was the right decision because Spieth promptly hit one of the worst shots of his life. He hit the ground far behind the ball, exhuming a divot so large that sportswriters across America sought out comical objects to compare it with. A flank steak. A manhole cover. A Buick. The ball itself barely reached the water of Rae’s Creek. But it did reach the water. Spieth was hitting 5.

He hit his next shot over the green and into the bunker, the one thing he had been trying to avoid all along. His best shot was the delicate chip out of the sand, and he made the putt. Spieth finished with a quadruple bogey and he was promptly three shots out of the lead.

“Buddy,” he would remember saying to Greller, “it seems like we’re collapsing.”

Willett was walking to the 16th tee when he saw the red 1 – for 1 under par – put up on the scoreboard next to Spieth’s name. Willett undoubtedly, began to think about destiny. Sunday was the official due date for his wife to give birth, and so he planned to skip the Masters. After Zachariah was born on March 30, Willett became the last person to officially enter the tournament.

And seeing Spieth implode, he realized this was now his tournament to win. Such a realization could overwhelm a man, but Willett came in as the No. 12-ranked player in the world and though he is fairly anonymous in the United States, he is, in fact, a terrific player. He promptly hit a brilliant shot at 16 and made birdie to increase his lead to four over Spieth. He parred the last two holes to get in at 5 under par. Willett then waited to see if Spieth had any last bits of magic.

Spieth did not. He briefly flashed some possibilities. He birdied the 13th and 15th holes with delicate approaches and superb putts, then at the 16th he hit it close but on the wrong side of the hole – his nasty downhill putt for birdie did not have a prayer. Spieth then buried his second shot in the bunker at 17 to end his chance. Willett’s friends attacked him out of joy.

Because Spieth was defending champion, he had the honor of putting the green jacket on Willett. It was undoubtedly as agonizing as it looked. Spieth appeared dead inside. “I can’t think of anybody else who may have had a tougher ceremony to experience,” Spieth said.

Ah, but there was somebody. Listen to the echoes. They are everywhere at the Masters. The voice above in this story – the one talking about the brain shutting down and the agony of not finishing the job – belongs to the very man that Jordan Spieth shared a locker with in the champions’ locker room this year. It belongs to Arnold Palmer. That was 55 years ago.

In his glorious career, Palmer famously faltered in some big moments, but those came later. In 1961, like Spieth this year, Palmer was still viewed as invincible. He was defending champion, and he led by a shot going into the 18th hole, and he hit a perfect drive. He strode up the fairway, that famous Palmer walk, and he saw an old friend, George Low, a putting guru. “Nice going, boy, you won it!” Low said. Palmer smiled and accepted the congratulations.

Disaster followed. Palmer hit his second shot into a bunker. According to press reports some fans, hoping for a playoff, cheered Palmer’s failure. He was noticeably shaken as he flew his third over the green and into the gallery. His chipped rolled to 20 feet from the hole. Palmer needed to make that putt just to force the playoff with Gary Player, but his head was gone. His putt threatened to fall but did not. Player had won.

And Palmer was the one who put the green jacket on Gary Player. Like Spieth, he was gracious throughout the ceremony. Then, Palmer returned to his car and slammed his golf shoes on top of an engraved silver cigarette box that had been given to him by Augusta National’s Clifford Roberts. Palmer had kept that dented box on his desk ever since as a reminder.

“I thought,” Palmer said, “that this only happened to other people.”

“This one will hurt,” Spieth said Sunday. “It will take a while.”

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