AUGUSTA, Ga. — It’s important to remember this: Jordan Spieth already has a green jacket. He’s played this course unbelievably well over the last three years, finishing 2-1-2. But now, Augusta National is swinging back, and hitting hard.
Spieth has spent most of the last 12 months insisting that, no, he wouldn’t suffer any lingering effects from last year’s 12th-hole meltdown, in which he threw up a four-over-par 7 en route to giving away a second green jacket he was effectively already wearing. And as he approached 12 on Thursday, his first in-competition look at the hole since last year’s nightmare, a palpable murmur ran through the thousands gathered on the hills of Amen Corner.
The omens weren’t great; in the group just before Spieth, Jeunghun Wang flew his first tee shot long, then put his second in the sand. Spieth watched the whole debacle from the safety of the 11th green.
When it came time to step up to the tee, though, Spieth came through. His own tee shot landed just slightly long and right — he could have used that last year — and two strokes later, Spieth was over and done with that hole, escaping with a par that kept him even for the day.
Spieth later dismissed the importance of standing on that tee box again, noting, with a touch of sarcasm, that it was “just as important as it was for me to hit the green on 4 and 6 and 16.”
And then, three holes later: disaster. Spieth bogeyed 14, and then followed with a horrendous carve-up of 15: dunking the approach in the water, flying the green, and then three-putting for a quadruple-bogey 9. That left him four over par, five back of the lead at the time.
“You think of it being a birdie hole, obviously being a par 5,” Spieth said afterward. “And unfortunately I still thought of it as a birdie hole today and it really isn’t, when you lay up.”
Spieth being Spieth, he birdied the next hole, the par-3 16th, and eased just a bit of the pain. He finished with two pars, and enters Friday at three over. “I’m going to probably need to play something under par [Friday], which puts a little bit extra, added maybe a bit of pressure that I wouldn’t have put on [Friday], because I was thinking even par for the two days was a good score,” Spieth said. “And obviously now three over, I feel like I need to snag something [Friday].”
It’s just Thursday, yes, but history indicates it’s difficult for anyone to make a significant charge up a Masters leaderboard absent a major collapse. History also suggests that Spieth will have a difficult time putting last year’s collapse behind him. The record isn’t a favorable one for the many players who have suffered a major meltdown en route to near-certain victory:
• Six years ago, Rory McIlroy saw his chances at a Masters championship vanish when he drove his tee shot on 10 into the cabins to the left side of the fairway en route to a triple bogey. He followed that with a bogey on 11, a four-putt double on 12, a shot into Rae’s Creek on 13, and a quick exit from Augusta. McIlroy shook off the woes of Augusta in a hurry, winning his very next major, the U.S. Open at Congressional, followed by three more in the next three seasons. But in his first return to the Masters, McIlroy finished at five-over, tied (with Tiger Woods, among others) for 40th place. His highest finish since then was a solo 4th in 2015, when Spieth ran away from the field.
• Greg Norman’s two collapses were momentous ones: first, he failed to force a playoff with Jack Nicklaus in 1986, and then surrendered a six-shot lead to Nick Faldo 10 years later. After the 1986 misfire, Norman continued to hammer at the door, finishing T2, T5, and T3 in the next three Masters. But the 1996 collapse damn near broke him. He missed the cut in the next two Masters, finished solo 3rd in 1999, then faded entirely. He’s only played Augusta once since 2002, missing the cut in 2009.
• Scott Hoch still has one of the more brutal collapses in Masters history. He entered the Sunday of the 1989 Masters four strokes off the lead, and walked off 18 tied with Nick Faldo for the lead. On the first playoff hole, he slid his birdie putt two feet past the hole as Faldo bogeyed. He faced a two-foot downhill putt – a putt roughly the length of two shoes end-to-end – and he rolled the ball so far left it barely got a look into the cup. Hoch slung his club into the air, awkwardly caught it, and then faced an even longer putt to keep the playoff alive. He made that one, but lost to Faldo on the next hole.Despite the backbreaking yank, Hoch remained in contention at Augusta, tying for 14th the year after his missed putt. He notched a T7 and T5 in the mid-1990s, but hasn’t played any majors since 2004.
• Ed Sneed, who’d begun the final day of the 1979 Masters with a five-stroke lead, walked to the tee at the par-3 16th three shots clear of Tom Watson. Sneed proceeded to bogey all three of those holes, capped with an agonizing miss on 18 when the ball, a quarter of the way over the edge, failed to drop into the cup. The tap-in bogey dropped Sneed into a playoff with Watson and Fuzzy Zoeller. Sneed eventually surrendered to Zoeller on the second hole. Sneed never got anywhere close to a Sunday leaderboard at Augusta again. He tied for 44th the next year, missed the cut in two more Masters, and never played Augusta again after 1983.
• In 1985, Curtis Strange led the field by three strokes with six holes to play … and then it all fell apart. He bogeyed both 13 and 15 when trying to go big; he hit the water on both holes when he declined to lay up. He finished second to Bernhard Langer, and spent the next few years answering questions about his dubious Sunday afternoon strategy. Strange, like Spieth still in the prime of his career, stayed in the mix at Augusta, finishing tied for 21st his first time back and even carding a couple top 10s before his final turn at the Masters in 1996. A member of the World Golf Hall of Fame, he never did get that green jacket. But he did get two U.S. Opens, winning back-to-back in 1988 and 1989.
• Kenny Perry came into the 2009 Masters already carrying one major collapse in his bag; he’d held a one-shot lead on the final hole of the 1996 PGA Championship before bogeying it and losing in a playoff. This time around, Perry was two strokes up on the field, and two holes from becoming the oldest Masters champion ever, when he bogeyed 17 and 18, falling into a playoff with Angel Cabrera and Chad Campbell. On the second hole, Perry’s shot drifted left of the hole while Cabrera’s remained true, and Perry’s nightmare ground to its inevitable, crushing finish. Perry’s failure was a cruel one, since he only had one more opportunity to play Augusta. He tied for 27th in 2010, and has not played Augusta since.
• Only 25 years old in the 1956 Masters, Ken Venturi took a four-stroke lead into Sunday, and appeared set to win until his putter betrayed him. Venturi three-putted six times, including four on the back nine, en route to a devastating 80. Venturi tied for 13th in his first return to Augusta. His next trip back, in 1958, ended up with him on the wrong end of an ugly rules controversy involving Arnold Palmer and an embedded ball at No. 12. Venturi never did win his green jacket, though he would go on to win the U.S. Open in 1964 and was named to the World Golf Hall of Fame.
So what can we take from this? It’s possible to recover from a Masters collapse; McIlroy has won four majors since his debacle, and Strange and Venturi both had Hall of Fame-level careers after their losses. But several other players saw their last chance at glory fade into the Augusta sunset; they never got anywhere close to that level of victory again.
More ominous, though, is that none of the players who suffered any of these breakdowns ever rebounded to win the Masters. The closest was Norman, who followed his 1986 misfire with the worst collapse of them all. (Of course, it’s worth noting that none of these players had won a green jacket before their collapse, either.)
Spieth gets his next crack at 12 and, now, 15 on Friday. Clearly, Augusta isn’t giving up that second green jacket without a fight.
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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.