Spieth stumbles but still keeps Masters lead

Published 9:03 pm Saturday, April 9, 2016

AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — Another march to a Masters title for Jordan Spieth suddenly turned into a walk on the wild side Saturday.

Spieth finished in the lead for the seventh straight round at Augusta National. He was one round away from becoming only the fourth player to win back-to-back in 80 years at the Masters.

But he sure made it hard on himself.

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Spieth had a four-shot lead as he stood on the 17th tee. The wind that caused so much havoc earlier in the round had subsided. Rory McIlroy was out of the picture. And then it all changed with two wild tee shots, two poor wedges and three dropped shots.

And just like that, it’s a wide-open Masters.

“It was a really tough finish to go from holding a four-shot lead … to where all of the sudden, now it’s anyone’s game,” Spieth said. “So it’s tough to swallow that. I’m in the lead after 54 holes. If you told me that at the beginning of the week, I’d be very pleased. So it’s mixed feelings right now.”

A bogey and a double bogey gave Spieth a 1-over 73 and a one-shot lead over Smylie Kaufman, playing in his first Masters. It also gave plenty of hope to a cast of challengers that include 58-year-old Bernhard Langer and Hideki Matsuyama of Japan, who were two shots behind.

Looming were world No. 1 Jason Day and Dustin Johnson, only three back.

Spieth was at 3-under 213.

Eleven players — even McIlroy, who didn’t make a birdie and shot 77 — were within five shots of the lead.

“I think it will be tough to put it behind me,” Spieth said of his finish. “That wasn’t a fun couple of holes to play. It’s not going to be fun tonight for a little while. Hopefully, I’ll sleep it off and I’ll be fine tomorrow.”

He led by four shots after the third round a year ago and was able to protect the lead. With a forecast for less wind Sunday, it could be a sprint to the green jacket filled with birdies, eagles and those Augusta National roars.

“I know I have to shoot a significant under-par round tomorrow in order to win this tournament, when I could have played a different style of golf, like I did on Sunday last year,” he said.

Kaufman, who qualified for the Masters by shooting 61 in the final round to win in Las Vegas, used to spend his summers playing junior golf against Spieth. He kept the stress to a minimum and rallied with three birdies over his last six holes for a 69.

No one has won a green jacket on his first try since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979. Maybe there’s one waiting for a 24-year-old named Smylie.

“This place fits my eye pretty well,” Kaufman said. “I just enjoy playing, coming out every day. It’s Augusta National. It’s hard not to have some fun out there.”

The biggest surprise was Langer, who won the second of his two Masters in 1993 about three months before Spieth was born. Playing alongside Day — and usually playing from some 60 yards behind him — Langer plodded his way around in the wind and ran off three birdies for a 70.

On the 30-year anniversary of Jack Nicklaus becoming the oldest Masters champion at 46, Langer now has a chance to become the oldest winner of any major by 10 years. Julius Boros won the 1968 PGA Championship when he was 48.

Can he really win?

“I believe I can,” Langer said.

Matsuyama, who won the Phoenix Open earlier this year, had a brief chance to tie Spieth until missing a birdie chance on the par-5 15th. Just like Spieth, he let the last few holes get away from him with bogeys on the 16th and 17th for a 72. He still was only two shots behind.

Day (70) and Johnson (72) were at even-par 216, along with Danny Willett, the Englishman who wasn’t sure he was going to be able to play in his first Masters because his wife was pregnant. She gave birth last week.

Almost as surprising as Langer being two shots behind is McIlroy still even having a chance. Starting the round one shot out of the lead, he fell apart after the turn with a bogey from the trees on No. 10 and a double bogey in the water on the 11th.

Spieth also made double bogey at No. 11, but was able to recover. The lead was down to one shot, until he made an 18-foot birdie on the par-3 12th, then holed fast, sliding birdie putts on the 14th and 15th to restore his margin.

And three holes later, it was gone.