When Jordan Spieth’s birdie putt on the 16th green dropped into the hole just after 5:40 p.m. on another stirring Masters Sunday, Spieth had made up the nine strokes that formed the gap between him and Patrick Reed at the beginning of the day.
At that moment, any number of stunning outcomes were possible for Spieth over the next hour. The Augusta National course record was in reach. So was the record for the biggest final-round comeback in Masters history. And, oh yes, Spieth could have won his second Masters and his fourth major championship, all three months before his 25th birthday.
But as the ball disappeared into the cup at No. 16 and the gallery erupted with an ovation that shook a sturdy grandstand, Spieth did not react.
There was no celebration, not even a smile. At last, he turned to his caddie, Michael Greller, and said, “Are you kidding me?”
Throughout a worldwide golf community that is drawn annually to the final two hours of the Masters tournament precisely because it produces examples of unmatched drama like Spieth’s rousing charge, there must have been a lot of people with the same notion on their lips.
Are you kidding me?
And while Spieth did not set any records and he finished in third place, two strokes behind Reed, he nonetheless created another indelible Masters memory, something he has done in each of the last five Aprils as a perennial contender here.
One takeaway from the 2018 Masters might be this: Golf fans might as well get used to Spieth as a dominant story line at Augusta National’s famed competition for a green jacket. Since 2014, Spieth has always seemed to be the one to watch — even when he has begun the day as an afterthought, as on Sunday.
All eyes did not turn to him immediately. The attention was on the final-group pairing of Reed and Rory McIlroy, whose Masters aspirations fizzled yet again. But Spieth began his day with birdies on the first and second holes.
Then he birdied the fifth, eighth and ninth holes, capping a torrid opening nine-hole score of five-under-par 31. Spieth was still four strokes behind Reed, who did not appear rattled. But perhaps because he is neither physically imposing nor long off the tee, Spieth attracts a fervent following in nearly every golf circle. And on Sunday, on the hills and hollows of Augusta National, the galleries began to relocate, quick-stepping so they could watch Spieth perform in Amen Corner.
He came to the devilish par-3 12th hole, where he lost a late Masters lead in 2016 when he splashed two balls in the water, and shaped a steady tee shot close enough to knock in another birdie putt.
“I felt the crowd right then,” Spieth said. “I knew my history on that hole and they did, too. I started to think maybe something good was happening.”
But he refused to glance at any of the mammoth leaderboards on the golf course.
“I didn’t care,” Spieth said. “Things were working the way I was doing it. I wasn’t going to change anything.”
It’s something of a superstition.
“He never looks at the scoreboard,” said Justin Thomas, his longtime friend and his playing partner on Sunday. “But I was watching. I knew I couldn’t win so I was rooting for him.”
Two birdies followed on the 13th and 15th holes, both par 5s. Spieth sank a scary four-foot downhill putt to secure the birdie on No. 15, and with a thunderous cheer filling his ears, he pumped his right fist five times as he walked off the green toward the 16th tee.
Spieth was disappointed by the 16th tee shot, and with good reason. It stopped 33 feet below the hole. But the ensuing stroke appeared destined to find the hole the instant it left Spieth’s putter, tumbling out of view and into the cup.
Said Thomas: “I had goose bumps on my arms.”
The tie for the lead lasted only about 15 minutes, because Reed was not retreating. He regained a one-stroke lead. As Spieth approached the last hole, he needed a birdie or at least a par to keep the pressure on Reed.
Spieth’s final drive of the day just nicked a tree limb jutting into the narrow tunnellike opening off the 18th tee, and the ball ricocheted straight down, about 350 yards from the green.
“Not a real bad shot, just hit that little branch,” Spieth said later.
Spieth scrambled to give himself a makeable par putt, but the round’s magical air had an expiration date. In the last second of Spieth’s round, his par putt drifted off the hole.
Walking toward the clubhouse as the fans around the 18th green stood and applauded, Spieth finally spun his head back toward the scoreboard.
“I was feeling pretty gutted at the finish,” Spieth said. “I was disappointed by the last part. But truthfully, I began so far back.”
As it turned out, Reed did not flinch in his Masters crucible moment as he negotiated the final hole with a steely poise to seal a one-stroke victory over Rickie Fowler.
Standing beside the Augusta National clubhouse here late Sunday evening, Spieth could see workers setting up chairs and a lectern for the ceremony that would end with Reed wearing the distinctive green jacket.
Spieth had been the centerpiece of a similar celebration three years ago. In 2014, he had been a 20-year-old Masters rookie who completed the tournament in a tie for second. In two other years, he had finished second again and contended late into the final day before slipping into a tie for 11th.
Looking across at the preparations for the green jacket presentation as the sun began to set Sunday, Spieth looked very comfortable.