AUGUSTA, Ga. — Jordan Spieth was walking down the 17th hole at Augusta National Golf Club on Friday when a voice from the crowd lining the fairway cried out, “Welcome back!”
Spieth turned his head in the direction of the sound, but it appeared as if he didn’t hear it clearly.
The salute was repeated, only louder: “Welcome back!”
And this time Spieth waved and looked over his shoulder with a smile and a grateful expression that seemed to say: It’s good to be back.
It has been seven years since Spieth arrived at his first Masters as a 20-year-old less than three years out of high school. Back then, he played with flushed cheeks and a hop in his step that sent a jolt of youthful vitality through the typically middle-aged Masters galleries. When he took a two-shot lead through seven holes in the final round of the 2014 tournament, Spieth appeared to be on the verge of becoming the youngest major golf championship winner in 83 years.
When he tied for second instead, the Augusta National fans were no less smitten. A year later, at the 2015 Masters, he became only the fifth champion to have the lead after all four rounds.
On Friday, as Spieth vaulted up the Masters leaderboard with a four-under-par 68 that moved him to five under par and left him two strokes behind Justin Rose, the second-round leader, it was clear that his fans had not forsaken him. Spieth, a three-time major champion, may have not won a tournament from 2017 until last week’s Texas Valero Open, but at Augusta they have been eagerly awaiting his rebound.
The number of spectators at this year’s tournament is limited, although there are still several thousand on the grounds, and the biggest throng by far on Friday was following Spieth. It did not hurt that his junior golf friend of nearly 15 years, Justin Thomas, was playing one group ahead of him, which sometimes made possible the viewing of two popular players at adjacent holes.
But a round of major championship golf always has a beating heart to it, a core where the energy is focused. For nearly 25 years, if Tiger Woods was in the field, the dynamism always followed him. In Woods’s absence, at least this week, the Masters crowds are longing for the continuation of Spieth’s recent comeback, which has included several promising results in the last six weeks.
Asked if he noticed the extra attention of the fans on Friday, Spieth, who is tied for fourth, made a joke about how he finished in more obscurity on Thursday. In the last group of the first round, he finished as the sun was setting.
“It was such a slow round that I think people decided not only to have dinner but maybe go to bed by the time we finished,” he said with a snicker.
But Spieth, 27, is modest enough not to openly acknowledge that he had a cheering, enthusiastic following. At best, he conceded: “Yeah, we had a lot of people last week, and so maybe — I mean, I didn’t feel that it was any more than yesterday.”
Spieth’s appeal is no doubt tied to his past successes at a young age and an unassuming public image, but sports fans also love a comeback story, and Spieth’s fall had grown precipitous. After the 2020 Masters, which was only five months ago, his world golf ranking had dipped to No. 80. He has rallied to 38th, and it has much to do with the same things that made him a brilliant player from 2014 through 2017: his putting and short game.
On Friday, Spieth’s move up the leaderboard began with a 7-foot birdie putt on the devilish 10th green that moved him to two-under for his round. He nearly birdied the 11th hole after a brilliant approach shot, then bogeyed the treacherous par-3 12th hole, which had been his nemesis in past Masters.
Spieth’s tee shot at the roughly 155-yard 12th caught the upper lip of the bunker protecting the front of the green, making the shot three feet from perfect, and it trundled back in the sand. Spieth’s blast from the bunker left him a short par putt that he missed. He quickly snatched the ball from the cup and tossed it in Rae’s Creek alongside the green.
Why blame the golf ball?
“I was upset at the hole,” Spieth said. “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 out there, no kid to throw the ball to or anything like that. I don’t want to look at that golf ball anymore, so it goes into the water.”
Any golfer could relate.
But the setback at the 12th hole spurred Spieth, who birdied the 13th and 15th holes, both par 5s, and the daunting par-4 17th hole.
Afterward, Spieth was asked if he was peaking for a major, as Woods so often did.
He shook his head.
“Mine feels like steady progress,” Spieth said. “I wish that it felt like everything has been leading up to peaking here, but I’m just trying to have things get 5 percent better than they were last week.”
That seemed good enough for now. With a grin, he added: “There’s more good swings than there was a month ago, and there were more than there was a month before that.”
For another day at the Masters, Spieth was back, and welcomed back.