AUGUSTA, Ga. — It’s quickly becoming apparent that nothing — no stage, no situation — can intimidate Jordan Spieth, when the weight and pressure of golf history and conventional wisdom would emphatically conclude otherwise.
The meteoric rise of the 20-year-old Texan is beyond stunning. Without any PGA Tour status at the start of 2013 — he made the risky decision to withdraw from the University of Texas to turn pro — Spieth won once, had nine top 10s, played in the Presidents Cup, and was a lock for rookie of the year.
Maybe he’s got this rookie thing down because Spieth sure hasn’t appeared fazed in his Masters debut. If anything, he’s looked totally in his element, and how many players in this tournament’s history can honestly say that? After an unpredictable Saturday at Augusta National Golf Club, Spieth is now 18 solid holes away from a very prominent spot in the sport’s record book.
Spieth won’t have it easy, but he couldn’t be in a much better position. With his third straight under-par round, he went to bed Saturday night owning a share of the third-round lead at the 78th Masters. Spieth shot a 2-under-par 70 on Saturday, and at 5 under is tied with Bubba Watson, who coughed up a five-shot lead early in his third round and struggled to a 74. Matt Kuchar (68) and Jonas Blixt (71), like Spieth another Masters first-timer, are one shot behind at 4 under, with Rickie Fowler (67) and Miguel Angel Jimenez (66) two behind.
Nobody as young as Spieth has held the lead this late in any Masters, and if he wins he’ll become the youngest champion in tournament history; Tiger Woods was 21 years, 3 months when he triumphed in 1997.
Spieth, who turns 21 on July 27, also would land quite high on the list of youngest major golf champions. Gene Sarazen was 20 years, 5 months when he captured the 1922 PGA Championship, Tom Creavy was 20 when he won the 1931 PGA, and Johnny McDermott was 19 when he won the 1911 US Open. Since 1900, those would be the only three ahead of Spieth, if he can find a way to win the Masters on Sunday.
He might be 20, but Spieth doesn’t play, look, talk or act like it.
“Today was moving day. Today was a day to stay patient and try and get myself a later tee time even than today, and that goal was accomplished,” said Spieth, who will go off last with Watson at 2:40 p.m. “Tomorrow is about seeing how I can control my game and my emotions out on the golf course against guys that have even won here recently.”
That’s a nod to Watson, the 2012 champion who started the day three strokes clear, then stretched the advantage to five when he eagled the par-5 second hole and John Senden bogeyed No. 3. At the time, Spieth was one of eight players tied for second, five behind.
He began to chip away, and with Watson’s help narrowed the gap. Spieth birdied Nos. 14 and 15, the latter leaving him one behind Watson.
That slimmest of margins disappeared when Watson bogeyed No. 16, failing to make a short par putt. He looked twitchy with the putter much of the day, a deficiency that hadn’t been an issue: When Watson three-putted No. 6 for bogey, it was his first three-putt on the PGA Tour in 296 holes. He added another one at No. 13, and left at least three shots out there by not pouncing on the par 5s. He was behind the eighth green in two and only made par; three-putted No. 13; and missed a birdie putt at the 15th when he flew the green with his second shot.
“It was a difficult round. A couple three-putts. You two-putt those, you’re right there and you’ve got a two-shot lead,” Watson said. “All in all, a good day. If somebody told me on Monday that I’d have 74 and still be tied for the lead, I’d have taken it all day long.”
It should be a fun final pairing, with Spieth saying he’ll add a respectful “Mister” when addressing Watson. The 35-year-old’s response?
“That’s fine, when I’m hitting it past him.”
Watson again hit 12 greens in regulation, which is his stated key to success here, learned from five previous starts in this tournament.
Spieth doesn’t have that vault of knowledge to tap into, so he’s asked questions of those who know: six-time Masters champion Jack Nicklaus, two-time winner Ben Crenshaw, and Crenshaw’s longtime Masters caddie, Carl Jackson. Their advice: Stay patient, and don’t target too many flags. Middle of the green works just fine.
“I’m not nervous right now. I mean, I’m sure I will be, and I will be throughout the entire round tomorrow, but I was today, as well,” Spieth said. “We try to peak for the major championships, this being the first one and this one being very special to me. Now it’s on me.”