Spieth earns himself a seat at the table

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Spieth earns himself a seat at the table

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Palm Beach Post Sports Columnist
Jordan Spieth of the United States reacts to his birdie on the 15th green during Saturday’s third round of the Masters. (Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

AUGUSTA, Ga. - Jordan Spieth may not win this Masters. At Augusta National, it is always a sucker bet to pick a man in fourth place, two shots behind a pair of leaders as gifted as Justin Rose and Sergio Garcia, and a shot behind talented Rickie Fowler. If you want a winner, you usually look in the final pairing. 

But if Spieth does win this Masters, if he does complete a comeback from a quadruple bogey that lost him this event last year and a quadruple bogey in the first round this week that put him 10 shots out of the lead, you probably want to say you were watching. This quiet old course might have to sell ear plugs.

After Thursday's round, in poker terms, Spieth said he was down to "a chip and a chair." His last poker chip, but still with a seat at the table.

Now, the 23-year-old Texan is after the whole pot and some redemption, too.

There are dramatic "career arcs" for young stars, and then there's the Russian novel of a tale that began for Spieth last April and, with some luck, could come full circle this April. "I've been on both sides of it now," said Spieth, "and I like the winning side better. So, I'm certainly going for broke tomorrow."

Cross your fingers on that overlapping grip. Going for broke here Sunday has produced some of the greatest comebacks in golf history, from Gary Player's winning 64 in 1978 to Jack Nicklaus's 65 to win in 1986 to Nick Faldo's evisceration of Greg Norman, who had a six-shot lead in 1996. But, more often, going for broke leads to risk and sometimes, big bad numbers. Like doubles and (gulp) quads. 

Spieth has decided to take that bet. As he said to his caddie before gambling, and winning, on the 13th hole Saturday, "What would Arnie do?" This whole event has been a testimonial to the legendary Palmer, who died last year. By invoking him, and then mentioning that he had, Spieth is pushing forward a lot of chips. 

For perspective, go back to the final round of the 2016 Masters and Spieth's quad at the 12th hole. That one disaster, replayed ad infinitum ever since, snapped an incredible streak of 353 straight holes in major championship competition beginning at the 2015 Masters in which Spieth was 59 under par, had won two major titles and threatened to win all five events. 

Yet, after that quad, Spieth went quiet in major competition.

Oh, he rallied gamely that day and finished second. And he has won three Tour tournaments and lots of money. But Spieth was three-over-par in the four majors in 2016. Few wanted to say it, because he is an admirable model for his sport, but Jordan needed to get back on the horse.

That's why his quad at No. 15 on Thursday was so chilling to the golf culture. How could it happen again? Among the greatest players in history, quadruple bogeys in majors might be a once-a-decade sighting. Nicknames arose: The Quad Father. "I was at the cut line," Spieth said. "And I knew it."

So, it was stunning to see Spieth enter the interview room Saturday and stand stock still for a full minute looking at the leader board as he counted the names still ahead of him after shooting 69-68 the past two days. There were four. By the time he'd finished talking, there were only three.

Spieth believes that he may already have passed his worst crisis points in this event. On Friday, at No. 13, he'd done nothing to make up ground - just even par for the day. Then he birdied three of the last six holes. 

"Yesterday's round was bigger than today's, because it gave me a chance," Spieth said. "I went to bed with my heart pumping faster last night than I probably will tonight . . . We did what we needed to do today.

"Now, obviously, we just need one more day of it and probably a couple of breaks to go our way."

Spieth may face a little more adversity than that. At the racetrack, they say there are "horses for courses." Some like dirt more than grass, or firm footing more than mud. But there is no human sport where previous form on a course means as much as it does in golf. Are you good at coping with wind or rough, fast greens or monstrous length? 

In golf, the ultimate track is the Augusta, where elite players return to the same site for decades. They know it, to the last blade of devil grass. And it seems to know them and read their psyches, too. Once their "form" is established, it almost becomes an inescapable golf fate - either an emotional inspiration or a mental straight jacket, one not in the shade of green.

In this regard, the two Masters leaders are exact opposites. Garcia hates this course. In a long career without a major title, nowhere has he embarrassed himself more than here. In 19 Masters trips, he is 13 under par on Thursday and Friday, 47 over on the weekends. Yet Sergio caught a huge break when a shot headed into Rae's Creek at No. 13 mysteriously stayed on the bank, setting up birdie. He found his poise and shot 70. 

Garcia has said how much he'd love to break his major drought Sunday, which would be the 60th birthday of his hero and friend, the late Seve Ballesteros. Golfers will invoke any charm or chirp from passing birds if they think it will help. Garcia, who once said his career felt luckless, may imagine a Seve on his shoulder. 

Still, it's Rose who has proved that the Masters suits him. On the weekend in his last seven Masters, he has shot 15 under par. And he's won a U.S. Open.

Despite all the talent around him, no one in contention here has had a romance with the Masters like Spieth. In three previous visits he's been in the lead or tied for it on all three Sundays. And he's finished second, first and second. Masters history is full of Palmers, Nicklauses and Watsons who, once they start such a streak, stay on it for years.

Even Spieth can't fully explain his mastery of such a complex place at so young an age. Unless, of course, it's his imagination and astronomical golf IQ.

"I'm not sure," he said. "The golf course was Tiger-proofed at one point. You can't really Jordan-proof it. I don't overpower it. My fairways hit is 55 per cent. That's not very good . . . It's just been positioning, playing the golf course the way it's supposed to be played to where par could be your worst score . . . So it's really just kind of thinking around it."

Ironically, Sunday will be the first day that such a strategy may not quite be enough, especially if just one of the three men ahead of him play well. 

"So, it's a new experience for me, coming from behind on Sunday at the Masters, which is kind of fun to say," said Spieth. "Tomorrow might free me up a bit, being behind. Play aggressive because at this point it's win or go home."

Spieth won't be the safe bet. But it would be a big payoff. 

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