Jordan Spieth Returns to Contention by Playing ‘Without Fear’


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Jordan Spieth, left, and the caddie Michael Greller on the 18th hole of Saturday’s third round of the Masters.

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Andrew Redington/Getty Images

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Jordan Spieth stood in the woods, his line of sight blocked by a tree and his ball 228 yards from the 13th green.

“What would Arnie do?” Spieth asked aloud.

This Masters is the first since 1954 without Arnold Palmer, who died last year. Spieth said it was more than a coincidence that he invoked Palmer’s name on Saturday in the most tense moment of his third round.

“I’ve been thinking of Arnie all week,” Spieth said. “And thinking that you’ve got to play this golf course as he did — without fear.”

Spieth’s caddie, Michael Greller, was lobbying hard for Spieth to play it safe and lay up short of the creek that fronts the 13th green.

But Spieth felt his mind wander from the present to the past, channeling the ample history of Augusta National Golf Club, and of Palmer, a four-time Masters champion.

“I had confidence,” he said. “I thought in order to win this tournament I had to go for it. I had good vibes. What would Arnie do? That was my way of expressing what we had to do.”

With a 4-iron, Spieth struck his ball off a bed of pine straw and twisted a shot around a tree to put his ball 30 feet to the right of the hole. Two putts later, Spieth had a birdie, and more important, he had a symbolic statement on his way to a four-under-par 68 that left him two strokes behind the third-round leaders, Justin Rose and Sergio García.

The 13th hole is the last challenge in the menacing turn of Amen Corner, the famous three-hole stretch where Spieth lost last year’s Masters. And on Saturday, Spieth’s game was sputtering in the same spot.

His response, including his wondering what Palmer would have done, explains why he has accumulated one of the best records in Masters history with one victory and two ties for second in three appearances. In contrast to last year, this time he stepped into the heart of that great golfing crucible and not only survived, but excelled.

There is a final round yet to play, and Spieth may or may not win the 2017 Masters, but it is certainly time to stop wondering if he is still haunted by last year’s misadventure.

Yes, it will most likely come up again in Sunday’s final round, but on Saturday, Spieth spent about 30 minutes repeatedly — and impressively — extracting himself from dire trouble in the same territory of Augusta National where everything went wrong last year.

At the 11th, Spieth not only toyed with sending his approach into the greenside pond, he had to make a dicey, 8-foot par putt that, had he missed, would have stalled the momentum he had built with a front-nine score of 33.

At the par-3 12th, his nemesis last year, he pulled a wedge far over the green and faced another tricky shot — chipping from a downhill lie to a green that was sloping away from him. He got his ball to stop 10 feet from the hole, then made a breaking, deceptive putt for par.

“That putt was harder than it looked, and I’m glad I practiced it in practice rounds,” Spieth said later. “It moves a lot.”

And then there was the errant tee shot that left him in the woods on the 13th hole.

“You have to believe you can make those shots,” said Spieth, who is just 23 years old. “That’s the lesson.”

Spieth’s third-round 68 puts him in position for what would be a historic comeback. He trailed by 10 strokes after the first round, which included a quadruple bogey on the 15th hole. No Masters champion has overcome a first-round deficit larger than seven strokes.

“After that first round, I couldn’t ask for more than this,” Spieth said Saturday evening. “I feel great. It will be a new experience for me to be coming from behind.”

In each of his previous Masters appearances, Spieth held the lead after three rounds.

“It’s going to be nice to be behind,” he said. “I think it might free me up a bit. I want to play aggressively. Knowing I’m chasing the leaders will help.”

But Spieth could not help but return to his few minutes in the woods alongside the 13th fairway.

“I couldn’t see the hole there,” he said. “The actual shot wasn’t blocked. There was an opening. It was the perfect distance for a 4-iron. So it was just committing to the shot.”

Easier said than done.

Spieth asked: What would Arnie do?

With a laser shot out of the woods, a bold stroke that led to a pivotal birdie, he answered his own question.

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