Jordan Spieth pumped his fist — not once, or twice, but thrice — when his 12-footer from the fringe to save par disappeared into the cup on the 18th hole. So clutch.
That putt kept him bogey-free for the third straight round at TPC Sawgrass (and since his third round at the RBC Heritage, his last start), and with Martin Kaymer missing his nine-footer on a similar line, it gave Spieth a share of the 54-lead heading into the final round of The Players Championship.
It wasn’t an easy day for either player, especially when Spieth had trouble off the tee late in his round, but he impressed with his magnificent short game skills. He maintained his perfect scrambling streak, going 6 for 6 on Saturday.
Spieth is the first player since Greg Norman in 1994 to play 54 holes without a bogey at TPC Sawgrass. How do you even put how jaw-dropping that is into context?
“it’s very difficult,” said Spieth after posting a one-under 71. “It requires good short putting, a good feel around the greens, good lies and good bounces, a mix of all of that. I don’t think I’ve really ever done that in tournament, even going back to junior days of three-round events that you’d shoot 12, 13-under I don’t think, that I’ve done that.
“It gives me a lot of confidence going into tomorrow around the greens. I’ve been leaving it in the right spots. We’ve been thinking through shots. Other than 18, where we pulled the wrong club off the tee, each shot has been chosen to where, if I miss it, I’m missing it in a place where I can get up-and-down.
“So that’s just going to be the game plan tomorrow, and if I can play out of a few more fairways it would be nice so I can go at a couple more pins.”
I caught up with Spieth and Kaymer on the par-3 13th, where coincidentally things started going wayward for the 20-year-old phenom. He pushed his tee shot short right, leaving him a tough chip with the green running away from him. Naturally, he hit it with the perfect touch and nearly holed it, with the ball lipping out to kick-in range.
On the following hole, the 14th, which is playing the toughest this week, Spieth pushed his drive way right, giving him an awkward, difficult sidehill lie in the rough.
“I hit a shot on 13 with a 6-iron, and there was no reason for me to not be comfortable with it,” said Spieth, explaining his wayward tee shot on 14. “I had the same shot the first two rounds on that hole. But I kind of bailed a little on it, and it left me, I think, my alignment, a little off. My feet and shoulders weren’t matched up right where I wanted them to be, and therefore I wasn’t I was passively going through the ball. I wasn’t being aggressive through it the way I have been the first, whatever, 50 holes. I think that was kind of the issue there.
“I let a drive go on the next hole, because I’d hit a couple left earlier with my driver. They just curved too much. So whatever it is, I think it’s just alignment. My swing is still where I need to be. I was just looking for something.”
Turned out Spieth’s second shot with a hybrid on 14 led to his best par save of the day.
“I think the hybrid on 14 was probably the best shot I’ve hit here this week,” he said. “That was a really tough stance. I didn’t think I could get enough on it to even get it to the green, and there was a lot of numbers that came into play on that shot. I could have made 7 or 8 there, if the rough turns it over. But we just said, a hybrid is probably going to go through that better than a long iron, and if I miss it, miss it right and short, and that’s where I can get upanddown from.
“But that’s not an ideal position. I didn’t even know there was water over there, and it’s pretty far over there, and I was close to it. To get that up into the bunker and then caught a good lie, so I was able to just kind of flop it out and make the three, four-footer, that was probably the most clutch, probably the biggest chance until 18 that I had of making a bogey.”
Once again on 15, Spieth missed the fairway — this time to the left, but he caught a pretty good break, getting relief from a sprinkler head/drain. He was able to drop it more to the right, which gave him a better angle to go for the green. Otherwise, he would have had to punch it under the trees.
“Before that I would have probably just had to punch a 7 or 8-iron and try to run it up, and instead I got to drop it and I had a line to hit a little draw,” he said. “I had a 52-degree. I had 140, but 128 to the front, and I was just trying to hook it enough to get it to either bounce up or to land on and roll to the back of the green.
“If I hit it another 20 times I don’t think I could have gotten it any closer to the hole. It was a very nice bounce, but it was nice to have a wedge and be able to hit it higher in the air then try to run something up with how firm it’s getting.”
On the 16th, Spieth pulled his drive again, forcing him to lay-up on the reachable-in-two par-5. His third shot flew the green, leaving him in a tough spot and putting his chipping to the test again. (I said to a colleague, “OK, let’s see him get up-and-down from there!) But, of course, he pulled it off and made a five-footer to save par.
“On 16 I got pretty lucky my ball to split between two trees there to where I had a shot to lay up and had a tough up-and-down,” said Spieth.
“Yeah, just got a little off really all day today, didn’t feel as comfortable as yesterday, but that’s going to happen in a four-round stretch at times, and hopefully when we start tomorrow, it’s back to the way it was.”
Next, on the par-3 17th, Spieth hit a gap wedge to about 17 feet. After it found dry land, he exhaled deeply, almost like he was blowing something off his club.
“It was a good number,” he said, smiling, while explaining his reaction. “It was 125 a little down breeze, and my gap wedge goes 125 with a good, full shot, but the shot is playing 15 to 20. I flew that gap wedge yesterday like 35 or so, and that’s too much. You don’t really want to have to dial down a club on 17. You want to hit less club and just swing really hard. But I had to kind of take a little off of it, and while doing that hit it just a touch skinny, just hit it a groove too low, and that’s not a good feeling on 17.
“Fortunately, whatever wind was up there didn’t knock it down, it carried it, and it carried by a good three, four paces. I had some room.”
Finally, of course, there was the 18th, where he pushed his drive into the right rough. His ball was sitting deep in the rough and he had about a 10-yard opening in between two trees to punch out. He caught it a little heavy and it stopped about sixty yards short of the green. Then, his bump-and-run went long, but as I mentioned, he made that incredibly clutch putt from the back fringe.
“I had an opening,” said Spieth. “That rough is pretty thick over there. I didn’t realize it was that thick. But I hit the shot over there. It was buried down. I had a 5iron in my hands trying to just punch it up there straight at the hole, and then sometimes when you’re in that thick a rough and you swing hard enough, it’s a little upslope, sometimes a ball can just kind of pop up as a little knuckle ball up in the air, so I went back to a 4iron, and I tried to stay down through it. With the safe play, the shot that I hit was kind of what I expected to happen, and if it popped up, it would have gotten to the green, it would have carried a little further and rolled onto the green.
“I played more the conservative route there I guess on the second shot and then tried to play the conservative route on the third in landing it below the second tier, landing it down on the bottom tier and try and run it up. Fortunately, I got it into a position below the hole to make the putt.”
At times, we’ve seen Spieth get too emotional and frustrated this year, but this week, for the most part, he’s been able to stay patient and even-keeled, which he credits part of his success.
“Even a few months ago I’d say that my patience would have produced a different score,” he said. “I think the experiences over the last couple months and really working hard with my instructor through the mental game, along with talking a lot with Michael, and Michael has been very helpful to me in what he thinks and how he sees me speed up or I’m walking faster, I’m changing routines or whatever, I think that hard work has started to pay off in that position.”
The crowd was incredibly one-sided, rooting hard for the American Spieth. It was so obvious that both Kaymer and Spieth noted that the atmosphere felt like a Ryder Cup.
“It was difficult to play today,” said Kaymer. “It felt a bit like a Ryder Cup match, but we didn’t play in Europe, obviously. But it was a good day.”
Added Spieth: “To be honest with you, with how great of a guy Martin is, I wish it didn’t feel as much like a Ryder Cup, and that’s really kind of what it felt like out there, which is great. I think that’s only going to help me to have momentum with the crowd behind me.
“Everyone has been very respectful to Martin, but they’ve definitely been partial, which I guess is what Phil deals with on a daily basis and quite a few other guys.”
Martin and Jordan, who hadn’t played together before Saturday, were extremely cordial and friendly to each other. After Spieth missed a short putt on 10, Kaymer even gave him words of encouragement as they walked down the 11th fairway.
“What I’m most impressed with, what’s something that I can look at and see as a role model, I think is the way that he approaches the game,” said Spieth. “(Kaymer) was out there truly having fun. He came up to me after I missed the putt on 10 and we were walking down the fairway at 11, he’s like, just don’t worry about it, just have some fun, this is where you want to be, which was really cool for him to come up and say that at the time.
“He did get to a couple-shot lead at the time, so maybe that made him happier, but it was just it was really nice for him to do that in the setting that we were in, and it just seemed like whatever break he had, it didn’t faze him whatsoever. If anything he just if it went his way, then he was happy with that.”
Meanwhile, John Senden and Sergio Garcia are the closest contenders at nine-under, trailing Spieth and Kaymer by three strokes. Matt Jones, George McNeill and Gary Woodland are at eight-under.
We’re in for what’s bound to be a thrilling battle tomorrow, folks.