Spander: Spieth has waited a year to be back in this position

AUGUSTA, Ga. — He's one day and 18 holes from a dream. Jordan Spieth still is in front of the Masters. Three rounds, and nobody else has caught him. Now comes the round that matters, the round that means whether he gets the championship or more disappointment.

There's a theory that a golfer who challenges hard at Augusta one year often returns and wins the next year. Spieth, at 21, can only hope it holds true. And his game holds up.

He was tied for the lead a year ago after 54 holes, as he is this year, but he wobbled a bit and tied for second behind Bubba Watson. He said the letdown taught him what he must do if he reached the same place again. Well, he's there.

Spieth shot a 2-under-par 70 Saturday. He's at 16-under 200 for 54 holes. He's four shots ahead of Justin Rose, five ahead of Phil Mickelson. But they have won majors — Rose a U.S. Open, Mickelson all but a U.S. Open. Spieth has not.

The potential for greatness long has been there. He was low amateur in the 2012 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club. At age 18. He's won on the PGA Tour. But this is the Masters — just the name will rattle some golfers — and as Tiger Woods reminded, “You never know — that's the thing about this golf course.”

Tiger has won four times on this course, Augusta National. Despite an impressive 68 Saturday that lifted him into a tie for fifth with several players, including Rory McIlroy, who stumbled after an early surge, there won't be a fifth time. He's too far back, 10 shots off the pace at 210, and also has to pass Rose and Mickelson.

The question is whether for Spieth there will be a first time.

Only four golfers in the previous 78 years of the Masters — Craig Wood (1941), Arnold Palmer (1960), Jack Nicklaus (1972) and Raymond Floyd (1976) — have been wire-to-wire winners. They were veterans, experienced. Spieth has been on Tour only two years plus.

Still, he's got the goods, a fine swing, a wonderful short game and excellent composure. When it seemed he might be coming apart down the stretch — a double-bogey at 17, a ball into the crowd on his approach at 18 — Spieth coolly saved par. So while 16-under isn't as impressive as 18-under, it's still remarkable.

“I don't think it matters who's close to him,” Mickelson said of Spieth. “I think he's playing very good golf.” So with their 67s Saturday, low for the third round, are Mickelson and Rose.

“I think he'll have a good round tomorrow,” Mickelson said.

That's not so easy the final day of a major. They will reminisce, sadly, about Greg Norman blowing a six-shot lead in 1996. Even the great Arnie threw away the 1961 Masters at the final hole.

Johnny Miller, who grew up at the Olympic Club and won a U.S. and British Open before becoming an ace commentator, led the 1971 Masters. “I got to the hill at 17,” Miller said of the par-5, “and started thinking how proud my dad would be to see me in a green jacket.”

His father, Larry, never did, and neither did the rest of us.

Spieth contends he learned from last year's mistakes, that he has to play within himself, has to not think of the big picture.

Golf is different than the other sports, however. You give as the other guy takes. Four shots? In the 1966 Open at Olympic, Arnie was four shots ahead of Billy Casper at the 15th tee the fourth round.

Two birdies by Casper, two bogies by Palmer, and the round was tied. Casper won the tournament in a Monday playoff.

“A little anxious,” Spieth said about the coming fourth round of the Masters. “But I'm actually more comfortable than I thought. What I'll try to take into Sunday is patience.

“Phil is going to have a lot of roars in front. It's about throwing those out of my mind, not worrying about it, not caring, setting a goal and being patient with the opportunities that are going to come my way.”

Which is not as simple as it sounds.

Art Spander has been covering Bay Area sports since 1965 and also writes on Email him at

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