Former US Open champion Curtis Strange believes Jordan Spieth will be able to exorcise the demons of last year’s dramatic collapse when he seeks a second green jacket at Augusta National.
Defending champion Spieth held a five-shot lead with nine holes to play in 2016 and looked certain to become just the fourth player, after Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods, to win back-to-back Masters titles.
However, after dropping shots on the 10th and 11th, Spieth hit two balls into Rae’s Creek on the par-3 12th and ran up a quadruple-bogey seven, with Sheffield’s Danny Willett taking full advantage with a closing 67 to win by three shots.
Spieth himself admits “it will be nice once this year’s finished” so he does not have to face more questions on the subject.
Strange, though, is confident the 23-year-old will be able to rise to the occasion in an event where he has been second, first and second in three starts.
Strange said: “I think he’s such a cerebral player, he’s such a solid player, and even if he gets up with a one-shot lead next Sunday, and the pin is in the same position, he’ll learn from what he did last year and he’ll hit the proper shot.
“And when do we ever learn? On mistakes we made. When we screw up. So I think that there’s nothing wrong with remembering when you screwed up the year before or a couple of years before, because you learn from that.
“You say, I’m not going to do that again. If you have to pitch it from the same position again, whatever it is, you learn from it and you don’t do it again. The first time is their fault, the second time is my fault.
“I think it’s okay. It’s not a negative, it’s actually a learning experience. Let’s not forget, he won a couple of weeks after last year, too, so it’s not like he went in the dark room and stayed for three days.”
Spieth won his ninth PGA Tour title in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am in February, but missed the cut in the Shell Houston Open on Friday after rounds of 69 and 77.
The 81st Masters looks poised to cook up something special.
For starters, world No 1 Dustin Johnson arrives in Augusta on the back of three straight victories, including back-to-back wins in World Golf Championship events to become the first winner of all four WGC titles.
The last man to win three consecutive PGA Tour events, world No 2 Rory McIlroy, will attempt to claim a first green jacket to join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Woods in completing the career grand slam.
McIlroy is one of the few big names without a victory in 2017 after suffering a stress fracture to the ribs over the winter, which came to light after he lost a play-off in the South African Open in January.
That meant plans for a busier than usual schedule ahead of the Masters went out the window, but the 27-year-old finished seventh in the WGC-Mexico Championship and fourth in the Arnold Palmer Invitational before a surprise early exit from the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play.
Willett will aim to defy the odds and become the first player since Woods in 2002 to make a successful title defence.
The Yorkshireman says it was during the short walk from the 15th green to the 16th tee at Augusta National that he realised his golfing life could be about to change forever.
Five shots behind defending champion Spieth with just nine holes to play, Willett had been doing his part to close the gap with birdies on the 13th and 14th, his third and fourth of the final round of the 2016 Masters.
But while Willett was making a par on the 15th and playing partner Lee Westwood chipped in for an eagle, it was Spieth’s meltdown that had the most seismic impact.
“We heard it (the reaction) from the two, three big grandstands around 15 when they are changing score,” said Willett, who had been the last player to register at Augusta after his wife Nicole gave birth to their first child, Zachariah, a few days earlier.
“We had a 12-foot putt for birdie and missed and we were still at four under par, and then obviously Westy had chipped in for eagle to get to three, and Jordan had done that on 12 and dropped back to one.
“We realised when Johnny (his caddie, Jonathan Smart) put the flag in on 15 and we were walking to the 16th tee. I said to Johnny, ‘We’ve got five good swings and (can) hopefully hole a couple of putts and see what happens’.”
What actually happened next was, to put it bluntly, a trip to the nearest player toilets.
“We needed to (go) for a few holes but it’s pretty difficult to just go in the trees at Augusta,” Willett joked in a teleconference ahead of his title defence. “You don’t want to get in too much trouble.”