AUGUSTA, Ga. — You watch Jordan Spieth standing on the tee at Augusta National's 12th, and your mind can't help but go back there. Back to 2016, when Spieth was leading the Masters by five strokes at the turn, and then three holes later was tied for fourth after a quadruple bogey at 12. Back when he had a chance to go wire-to-wire two Masters in a row, back when it seemed he owned the entire golf world. It's like watching Bill Buckner field a routine ground ball, or Scott Norwood set up for a field goal, or Nick Anderson step to the free throw line; no matter how many times they pull it off flawlessly, you'll always think of the one time they didn't.
Friday afternoon, Spieth stepped to the tee at 12 at -3, four strokes out of first. He'd already cut two strokes off Justin Rose's lead and appeared ready to carve even deeper. But then: a bump in the road. He three-putted on 12, looked at the ball, and flung it into the water ... and the reason why might hold a clue as to how Spieth could come back from the depths of golf purgatory to win another Masters.
"Was upset at the hole," Spieth said after his round. "If any body of water is there I'm going to throw it in the body of water and change to a new golf ball. There's no fans there, a kid to throw it to or anything like that. There's no one there. I don't want to look at that golf ball anymore, so it goes into the water and then I go to another ball."
That's pretty dang mentally healthy right there. And whether because he slung the offending ball into Rae's Creek or not, Spieth bounced back and went three under over his next five holes to end the day in a tie for third, just two strokes behind Rose.
It's another notch in Spieth's long climb back to golf's pinnacle. Until last week, he hadn't won a tournament — any tournament — since the 2017 Open Championship. He appeared lost, uncertain. He'd string together two good days, then detonate on Saturdays ... if he even made it that far. The "Golden Child" days of the mid-2010s seemed very far away.
But then, earlier this year, something started to happen. He tied for fourth at the Waste Management Open, then tied for third at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. He brought home a tie for fourth at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, and ran deep into the Dell Match Play event. Fans' sad headshakes became exultant fist pumps.
And then he went and won the Valero Texas Open Sunday by two strokes, and entered this tournament a betting favorite. You could see it in his walk: the Texas gunslinger's swagger, the slight smile, the strut ... it all came roaring back, bringing us to here, with huge galleries following his every move.
"I wish that it felt like everything led into peaking here, but I'm just trying to honestly have things just move 5 percent closer than they did last week to structurally being where I am in the swing," Spieth said. "There's more good ones than there was a month ago and there were more then than there was a month before that."
He'll have to face 12 two more times, two more opportunities for the hole to exact even more wicked vengeance. Here's the thing, though: Spieth hasn't played 12 all that badly. Counting the first two rounds of this year, he's +4 overall over the course of 30 rounds at the hole, meaning if you drop that quad, he's played it in even par. That's better than he's played Hole 5 (+8) and Hole 11 (+6), for instance. He's carded six birdies, 18 pars, four bogeys, one double ... and that one notorious "Other."
Spieth's been here before. He knows how to win a Masters, and he knows how to give one away. He's as confident as he's been here since the first half of Masters Sunday 2016 ... but will that be enough to win another green jacket?
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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