Jordan Spieth had a five-shot lead when he made the turn at the Masters on Sunday. What could go wrong, particularly with such a reliably tenacious and steely competitor? This was not some new kid who hadn’t been there before. This was the defending champion, U.S. Open champion and, until Jason Day’s recent spurt, the number one player in the world.
He had a spectacular front nine, given the magnitude of the moment, with five birdies and a bogey. He said later that the thought went through his head that with a five-shot lead, all he really needed to do was par in: 36 on the back would be good enough and doable.
This seemingly logical thought wasn’t as benign as it would seem.
When you shoot 32 on the front nine of the Masters and are running away from the field, there is a certain tenor to your efforts. You are leaning forward. You are going for it. You aren’t awash in adrenaline, but there is the sensation that your intention is causing you to operate at a higher level. Your metabolism may still be on an even keel, but your intensity is driving your actions.
So in suddenly deciding to change the level of your intention, you change the level of your intensity. You become careful; prudent. Try being careful walking on a split-rail fence or running the high hurdles. Spieth got “the rights” and bogeyed 10 and 11.
He arrived at the famous par-3 12th at the bottom of Amen Corner with not a lot of real concern despite the two bogeys. Since he was playing smart, he’d simply stay away from the far right pin and accept the decades of wisdom about how to play the hole: aim over the middle of the front bunker and take the two-putt par with the possibility that you could make birdie.
Spieth and his caddie, Mike, agreed that at 150 yards, it was just a stock 9-iron. He said later that he didn’t concentrate on the line as he had been and just put a quick swing on it. And didn’t take that little deep breath before the shot. But when you are trying to be careful and sense that you may still be a little amped up, you instinctively take something off the swing on the way down. You don’t want to wind up in that back bunker; it’s such a shallow green. And with the timing and acceleration of the downswing altered, you leave the face open producing a high pop foul right of the flag, onto the bank and into the water.
Golf Channel commentator and former Tour player, Jim Gallagher, said later that, “Everything speeds up when it blows up,” and we got a sense that that’s what might be happening when we saw what Spieth did next.
Rather than going to the drop area where they knew the yardage into a shallow green, they chose to drop on the line from the pin through the spot the ball went into the water. That took them way right of the green over in the 13th fairway, but gave them a shot up the spine of the green where distance didn’t have to be as precise if you favored being a little long. Spieth said later he wanted 80 yards so he could spin the ball to a stop. He didn’t feel that he could get that on 65-yard downhill shot from the drop area. But he also said he couldn’t be sure that his 80 yards was an accurate yardage.
Distracted by the uncertainty of the yardage and everything getting faster, he deceled on the downswing and instinctively tried to save it by chickenwinging the ball across the water. Watching the replay, his left elbow is way out in front leading the swing. He hit it fat and into the water. They quickly got another ball out, dropped it (everything goes faster) and hit it long into the back bunker. From there he got it up and down for a 7.
So the lessons in this great player’s disaster are:
- Don’t take your foot off the gas when things are going great. Intention and intensity are interrelated.
- When you get “the rights,” that may be an indication that you aren’t being as assertive with your swing.
- After back-to-back bogeys, your most important task is to be certain to get the ball in play. It’s not just getting your equilibrium back, it’s gaining momentum.
- You can’t let your mind wander from your intention on any shot.
- You can’t alter your pre-shot routine by deleting something as important as your breathing element.
- A certain yardage is better than a loose estimate because you never know just how loose it is despite your caddie’s best efforts.
- It even happens to the very best, so don’t be so hard on yourself when it happens to you.