As Jordan Spieth walked off the 18th green and up the hill toward the Augusta National clubhouse early Thursday afternoon, he eagerly slapped hands with spectators who reached out for what now must be considered his golden touch. How else to explain this 22-year-old’s mesmerizing mastery of the Masters almost since the day he set foot on these storied grounds?
In his 2014 debut, Spieth tied for second, challenging for the lead early on the back nine Sunday before losing by three to champion Bubba Watson. A year ago, the Dallas native soared to a wire-to-wire victory, tying Tiger Woods’ scoring record at 18-under-par. He led after every round following his pace-setting 64 the first day, only the fifth player in tournament history to accomplish that remarkable feat.
And on this Thursday, under sunny skies and treacherous swirling winds gusting close to 20 miles an hour, Spieth showed no sign of faltering, posting a bogey-free, 6-under 66 in only the third Masters of his already brilliant career. That left him two ahead of South Korea’s Danny Lee and Ireland’s Shane Lowry, both at 4-under 68.
Also lurking were plenty of formidable foes, including 26-year-old Irishman Rory McIlroy, aiming to become the sixth player in golf history with a career Grand Slam of all four majors. Playing in the final threesome, he eagled the 510-yard 13th and birdied the 530-yard 15th to get within two of Spieth, only to falter with two bogeys in his last three holes for a 2-under 70.
Spieth had his fifth consecutive round as the Masters leader. With one final five-foot putt at 18, the No. 2 player in the world rankings added a sixth birdie to a first-round card that also included several critical holed putts for par. Perhaps the most important save came at the 170-yard 16th, when he sank a 15-footer before his par-birdie finish.
“I got the most I could possibly get out of my round today,” Spieth said afterward. “The round today may have been even better then the first round last year. … With the conditions and a western wind, it makes the holes very challenging. The course is playing very long today. … You’ve got to stay really, really patient.”
Spieth played with a new driver head after his regular model cracked slightly in practice Wednesday.
“Obviously, it was not ideal,” he said. “But I hit balls with it this morning and everything seemed fine. I did hit a lot of 3-woods today, but my driver didn’t cost me anything.”
Over his nine career Masters rounds, eight have been under par, the only exception an even-par Sunday 72 in 2014. His overall tournament stroke average is 69.13 for a player who’s not a big bomber of the ball off the tee but thrives on courses like Augusta National that require exquisite feel and creative imagination.
He’s hardly alone with those skill sets, as Jason Day, No. 1 in the rankings, demonstrated during his afternoon opening nine. The Australian cruised the front in 5-under 31 and seemed destined to threaten Spieth’s lead. Then came a sudden, stunning implosion, starting with a three-putt bogey at the 530-yard 15th and a triple-bogey six at the 170-yard 16th after a tee shot splashed in the pond. He bogeyed 17, losing five shots in three holes, to continue his free fall to even-par 72.
“I’ve got to keep pushing forward,” he said. “I’m only six back. If I can play the way I did the first 14 holes, over the next thee days, I can still catch up.”
Lowry also seemed poised to pass Spieth by day’s end, running off four birdies in a row starting at the second hole and posting his own front-side 31. He also stalled on the back, shooting 1-over 37 to end with 68. Lee, who missed the cut in his only previous appearance, pushed up the board with a three-birdie, bogey-free back nine.
Spieth’s spectacular start was hardly unexpected, but other bizarre developments marked this blustery day.
Ernie Els, a three-time major champion making his 22nd Masters appearance, needed nine strokes — including six putts from inside three feet — on the very first hole, leading to a first-round 80. It was his highest score in this event. He’s never missed a cut here, but that likely will change Friday.
Rickie Fowler, ranked fifth in the world and another of those talented 20-somethings, also had 80 after a 44 on the back, including a triple-bogey eight with a second shot in Rae’s Creek at the 13th and a double bogey at 16.
Watson, who won in 2012 and 2014, made himself sulky-miserable with a sloppy back nine, including two shots in the water and his first career double bogey at the 16th for a 75. And Adam Scott, the 2013 champion also considered among the pre-tournament favorites, had six bogeys and a 76, 10 shots behind Spieth.
As Fowler moaned afterward, “golf’s not an easy game.”