AUGUSTA, Ga. – Golfers like to say take what the course gives you. It’s supposed to be a sign of maturity. When Jordan Spieth’s drive off the 13th tee leaked right and nestled into the pine straw with 230 yards and a creek between his ball and the flag, the course wasn’t offering much.
He was close to the same spot where Phil Mickelson, his playing partner in Saturday’s third round, went for broke on the par-5 hole in the final round in 2010 and went on to win, guaranteeing a place for that shot in Masters lore. Spieth, on the other hand, already had made up a lot of ground on the leaders after an opening-round 75 left him 10 shots behind, and thus had a lot less incentive to risk giving it back.
The 23-year-old Texan is a cool customer away from the course, but in the heat of competition, he sometimes launches into a running commentary on how he’s playing. His caddie, Michael Greller, once explained the two made a great team because he learned to handle middle-school math classes before he lugged a golf bag around for a living.
And perhaps because his player had made birdie at No. 13 the last two years using a wedge for his third shot, this is how their conversation began:
“He was very much pressing for a lay-up there and laying up was the smart shot,” Spieth recalled.
A bit of background is important at this point: Spieth has played the Masters three times, finishing second, first and second. Until he dumped two balls in the watery grave that fronts No. 12, he was nearly a lock last year to become the first player since Tiger Woods in 2001-02 to successfully defend his title. He made another quadruple bogey at No. 15 on Thursday and went to sleep that night worried about just making the cut. But now he was determined to go for the green with a 4-iron.
“So all that went through my head,” Spieth said.
That was the moment he turned to Greller and said simply, “What would Arnie do?”
Arnie, of course, is Arnold Palmer, a four-time Masters champion whose death last June has occasioned memorials at nearly every stop where golfers have gathered since. Like Mickelson, but unlike Spieth for the most part, he played with a swashbuckling style. It’s hard to say whether Spieth was trying to tap into that “go-for-it” spirit, or as he hinted afterward, just looking for a way to convince Greller that it was the right play at the right time.
Once the ball left the clubface, any remaining doubts disappeared. It settled 30 feet from the flag and Spieth two-putted for his next-to-last birdie of the day, the highlight of a sparkling 68 that left him two shots off the lead heading into the final round.
“I’m proud that I pulled that shot off,” he said afterward.
Spieth can be a cautious sort and he’s always tough to catch with a lead. His position starting Sunday dictates a different style. He’ll have to take more risks early and often than he might find comfortable.
“I know anything can happen,” Spieth said, which sparked nervous laughter in an interview room where nearly everybody remembered last year’s collapse.
He’s not a big hitter like Dustin Johnson, or even a match off the tee for co-leaders Justin Rose and Sergio Garcia.
“I guess the golf course was Tiger-proofed at one point. You can’t really Jordan-proof it,” he said, setting off another round of laughs. “I don’t overpower it. I don’t ... my fairways hit is 55 percent. That’s not very good.”
He counterpunches by hitting greens in regulation and rolling in plenty of putts. That might not be enough if the flags are accessible and birdies prove easy to come by for the rest of the field. The chance to be aggressive all the way around — “you have to keep the gas pedal down and pretend you’re not,” Spieth said — could turn out to be liberating.
He previewed that strategy a day earlier, birdieing two of the final three holes en route to a 69.
“I gave myself ‘a chip and a chair,’” is the way Spieth described Friday’s round. The phrase originated in poker at least three decades ago. According to legend, a player who believed he’d been wiped out walked away from the table, then noticed a single chip on his seat and promptly parlayed it into a win. Spieth relished the opportunity to try.
“Tomorrow,” he said with a smile, “might free me up.”
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at email@example.com and https://Twitter.com/JimLitke