SUNSHINE on Spieth. That should be the banner headline for the opening round of the 79th Masters after it belonged to one of the most exciting young talents in the game.
With a scintillating eight-under-par 64, Jordan Spieth earned a place in the history books by becoming, at the age of 21 years and eight months, the event’s youngest first-round leader.
Twelve months ago, he was on course to become its youngest-ever winner until squandering a lead in the final round as Bubba Watson claimed his second Green Jacket in three years. Wasting no time in showing he’s out to make amends for that disappointment, Spieth ended the day with a three-shot lead over four players - fellow American Charley Hoffman, Justin Rose from England, South Africa’s Ernie Els and Australian Jason Day. Bidding to make it three major wins in a row and complete a career Grand Slam, world No 1 Rory McIlroy opened with a 71, two better than Tiger Woods in his first competitive outing in more than two months.
Spieth, who has come into this event with a win and two runner-up finishes in his last three outings, signed for nine birdies. He hit the pin with his approach at the 14th for one and rolled in a 20-footer for another at the last.
“It is one of the better rounds I’ve ever played,” admitted the Texan afterwards. “I came in here with a lot of momentum and it’s really cool to shoot 64 here - I’ll take another three of them. I didn’t drive the ball particularly well, but I got some good breaks and capitalised on them.”
While Spieth’s late effort denied him the chance to be in the lead for the fourth time here after the first round, it was also a rewarding day’s work for Rose as he emerged from a sluggish run of form to look more like the player that won the 2013 US Open and, of course, last year’s Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open at Royal Aberdeen.
“It’s really cool to shoot 64 here - I’ll take another three of them.”Jordan Speith
He partly attributed the welcome return to form to being in the same group as defending champion Watson, who opened with a 71. It, he admitted, had given him a “nice bit of energy or adrenaline to really kick start my game”. Six birdies followed, with his only blemish coming at the 11th. While delighted with the opening salvo, Rose was quick to stop himself getting too excited just yet. “There’s really no point getting ahead of yourself on this golf course,” he pointed out. “I’ve definitely learned the hard way a couple of times, which was obviously a good experience.”
In 2004, he finished 22nd after holding the first-round lead. Three years later, he got off to another flying start before finishing fifth - his best effort here. In 2008, he dropped from pole position to 35th by the end. “I was very young when I had the first opportunity,” recalled the 34-year-old. “My best chance was in 2007, when I was one back with two to play. There’s so much golf left that I don’t even think it’s worth paying attention to (who is leading), but I’ve been there on the back nine and it feels great.”
Els, who illuminated his round with an eagle at the 15th, went five years in a row here finishing sixth or better but has not been in the top 10 since being pipped by Phil Mickelson in 2004 - the second time he’d ended up as the bridesmaid. “Definitely,” he replied to being asked if there had been a hangover effect. “I wanted this one so badly for so many years and you get fed up with yourself over the mistakes that you make. I felt that I left shots out there in that five or six‑year span, so a little frustration set in.”
On a day when Rangers chairman-in-waiting Dave King and Scotland manager Gordon Strachan were among the patrons, Hoffman reckoned that being first on the tee after the Honorary Starters - Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player - had been helpful in making his eye-catching start. “It was cool getting up this morning and warming up with Jack, Arnie and Gary,” confessed the 38-year-old from San Diego. “It puts the nerves at ease watching those guys warm up and my mind wasn’t really on golf.
“Out there at the putting green, I actually got Jack’s and Arnie’s autograph. I was scared to ask them, but they were nice enough to do that. I thought about it yesterday leaving the golf course. I bought a couple of flags and I’ll auction them off for my kids’ foundation event.”
Hoffman, who secured a second appearance here after a four-year gap by winning the Mayakoba Classic - his third PGA Tour triumph - in Mexico last November, sparked a strong finish by rolling in a 12-foot eagle putt at the 15th before picking up birdies at the 16th and 18th. He described the way he’d played as “smart aggressive” and also acknowledged that being out in the first group as a two-ball had been beneficial. “I like playing at a decent pace,” he admitted.
Day, second in 2011 and third two years later, is off to another promising start, having birdied five holes in a row from the 13th in an eye-catching thrust late in the day. “I didn’t feel my swing timing was right so I’m proud to have ground out that score,” said the 27-year-old.
McIlroy described his start as “solid”, even though it included a wild drive into the creek at the second and a brace of chunked chips - perhaps they are becoming contagious - at the third and the sixth. “It was nice to get out there and finally play,” he said after signing for a ninth consecutive sub-par score in majors. “It could have been better, it could have been worse. Anything under par today is a decent score. If I can drive the ball the way I did today and hit a few iron shots closer, I should be right there.”
While admitting he’d made “two dumb mistakes”, four-times winner Woods was pleased with his first outing since withdrawing from the Farmers Insurance Open in early February. “It was a good day - I played good out there,” said the 14-times major winner. There was no sign of the short-game woes that led to him taking a self-imposed break. “I’ve worked my butt off to make that the strength of my game again,” he added.
On a course he reckoned was “there for the taking”, Tom Watson was pleased with a 71. “At my age, to be in red figures at Augusta National is a minor miracle,” said the 65-year-old of an effort that has given him a good chance of being around for the weekend here for the first time in five years. “I struggled the last few years trying to hit shots like I used to,” added the two-times winner. “My ego got involved too much but today I just kind of played within myself.”
Holing out of a bunker for a birdie at the tenth helped his card. “I got lucky with that,” admitted Watson with a smile. “It landed about six feet short and then it was a slam dunk into it for a birdie, rather than rolling by about 10 feet.”
Even for a genius like him, however, there are some shots on a course that now measures close to 7,500 yards that are becoming “awfully tough”. The approach at the ninth, for instance. “The kids are hitting 7, 8 and 9‑irons to and I’m back there hitting 3‑irons off the down slope. It’s a hard shot for an old guy like me,” he sighed.
Had Tuesday night’s Champions Dinner been the first occasion that Watson had come face-to-face with Phil Mickelson (who opened with a 70 along with 2013 winner Adam Scott) since the most popular player in American golf slaughtered the US Ryder Cup captain following last year’s defeat at September? “No, I saw him before that,” replied Watson. Is there relationship awkward now? “No, we just said hello and that was it,” he added, though it was hardly a sign the pair have kissed and made up.
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