The huge thunderstorm that appeared to wake up half of the city in the middle of the night was followed by a whirlwind blowing through Augusta National. It felt like that, anyway, as Jordan Spieth took up in the 80th Masters where he’d left off when winning the previous edition. His opening 66, six-under-par, was expertly carved out in blustery conditions. It was the eighth time in nine rounds that he managed to break par here. Cumultatively, he is now 29-under-par.
This latest eye-catching effort by Spieth gave the 22-year-old Texan a two-shot lead over Irishman Shane Lowry and New Zealand’s Danny Lee. A posse of Europeans - English trio Paul Casey, Justin Rose and Ian Poulter, Spaniard Sergio Garcia and Dane Soren Kjeldsen - sit a shot further back.
After dropping two shots in the last three holes, Rory McIlroy had to settle for a 70 as he chases a career Grand Slam. Breathing down Spieth’s neck on the 15th tee, world No 1 Jason Day dropped five shots in the next three holes and had to settle for a 72.
As the dust settled, it was advantage Spieth, who enjoyed an added bonus as some of the players who’d been expected to be among his main challengers suffered stuttering starts and, in the case of one, a nightmare. Two-time champion Bubba Watson and 2013 winner Adam Scott carded 75 and 76 respectively while world No 5 Rickie Fowler slumped to an 80.
The wind that had been predicted was just starting to whip up when Spieth, who’d been forced to press a replacement driver into action on the eve of the tournament after cracking the face of the one that had been in his bag, set out at the start of his title defence. His approach to the first was pushed, but he wasted no time showing why he’s so at home on this course. His touch with a chip from below the hole across the green was exquisite, comfortably saving par.
Having made a record 28 birdies 12 months ago, Spieth opened his account on this occasion at the third, where his approach spun back to within a couple of feet. His second gain of the day was made at the par-3 sixth courtesy of a 12-footer. It was apparent by then that Spieth was off and running again here. In comparison to others in the field, he is still very much a novice when it comes to playing this course in the heat of battle. It’s doubtful, though, that any player in the game’s history has taken to a venue with such aplomb. Talk about a place suiting someone’s eye.
He moved to three-under with a birdie from close range at the par-5 eighth, where a three-footer was rattled in with Spieth looking at the hole, as he likes do with putts from that sort of distance. It saw him turn in 33. Astonishingly, it meant he has now broken par in nine consecutive nines here, this effort adding to a run of 32-32-33-33-35-35-35-35. He has led after every one of them. In fact, the last time Spieth didn’t find himself in that position after a nine-hole segment here was following the final round in 2014.
Stunning play has been reponsible for that. Like everyone else, though, Spieth needs breaks to go his way every now and again. They did at two holes in succession as he started for home. A tugged 3-wood from the tenth tee could easily have kicked into a nasty spot. It landed favourably, though, allowing him to make birdie No 4 with a seven-foot uphill putt. That regained the outright lead after Casey had momentarily moved level with Spieth by converting a 25-footer across the green at the same hole.
Spieth then pushed his drive at the 11th, a beast of a par 4 at 505 yards. He found a gap through the pines to land his second on to the green but it came perilously close to ending up in the water. The two-putt par from long range was definitely a good result.
One of Spieth’s many qualities is that he wears his heart on his sleeve. The fist pump that greeted a good par save at the short but troublesome 12th, where he opted to take his putter from the fringe only to leave the first one about five feet short, was a good illustration of that. The event may still have been in its infancy, but Spieth knew the importance of that in terms of momentum.
He finds making birdies here look ridiculously easy. Another one went on the card at the par-5 13th. It could just as easily have been an eagle following a majestic approach from a hanging lie to no more than six feet. Spieth’s almost magical touch around these undulating greens was illustrated again after going through the back at the 14th. His difficult chip was knocked into the bank to take the sting out of the shot and par was saved. He repeated the feat at the par-3 16th. Safeguarding from going in the water on the left, his tee shot was pushed. Both the subsequent chip and eight-foot putt were things of beauty. His putter earned a kiss for its continued success.
Three clear of the field at one point, his lead was cut to one when Casey – the Englishman was clearly relishing being in Spieth’s company – moved to four-under following three birdies in four holes from the 13th. Casey then undid some of that good work with a bogey at the 17th.
He then found himself three behind as Spieth applied a fitting finish to his day’s work. With the wind helping, he only need an 8-iron for his approach. It was despatched to around six feet. As ever, the putt was read to perfection. If he keeps this up, Spieth is going to have quite a collection of Green Jackets in his closet by the time he has finished in this game.
There’s still a long way to go in this event, of course, and Spieth certainly wasn’t the only player to feel satisifed with their opening salvo. Lowry, for instance, has taken his game to a new level since winning the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational last summer. The 29-year-old made his score by storming to the turn in 31, five-under, before hanging on coming home. “I’m sure I’m going to be sitting back tonight thinking at some stage about wearing a green jacket. I’m only human. I’m going to do that,” Lowry said. “But I’ve just got to kind of give myself a slap in the face and get myself back into reality and try to get down to business and keep hitting good shots and see where that leaves me at the end of the week.”
Lee was also delighted with his four-under effort that was chiselled out in the company of Russell Knox. Out in one-under, the 25-year-old made a brace of 2s on the back nine. His only previous appearance here was as the US Amateur champion in 2009. His return ticket was booked after winning the Greenbrier Classic last year. “After I made the winning putt, all I was thinking about was coming back to this place,” he said. “Now it’s finally here and I’m having a blast out there.”
Casey, sixth on his debut in 2004 before finishing in the same spot 12 months ago, was once strongly tipped to join the major winner’s circle. He looks in the mood again to get in the mix in these events after reigniting his career since focusing on the PGA Tour.
Having won the 2013 US Open, Rose already has a major title under his belt, but this is an event he clearly feels condident of winning, too. Finishing runner-up 12 months ago was evidence of that and now he’s off to a good start again. Poulter, Garcia and Kjeldsen all finished with a flourish late in the day in adding to a sizeable European representation.
Lowry’s outward score was matched by Day before his good work was undone by going 6-6-5 from the 15th. Pulling an 8-iron into the water at the 16th caused the bulk of the damage for the 28-year-old Australian, who came in here riding on the crest of a wave after back-to-back wins. “It’s not the way I planned it out today, but I played some really good golf up until then,” he said. “Now I’ve just got to slowly try to inch my way back into this tournament.”
The highlight of McIlroy’s round was an eagle-3 from around 18 feet at the 13th. He’d preferred if he’d not given those two shots back through bogeys at the 16th and 18th. At the same time, however, it was a decent first day’s work overall for the 26-year-old. “I’m a little disappointed about the way I finished,” he admitted. “But if someone had given me a 70 on the first tee I’d probably have taken it due to the conditions being tricky today.”
It was definitely a day to forget for Fowler, who’d been heavily tipped coming into the event as being one of the leading contenders. “Very disappointed,” groaned the Scottish Open champion after his eight-over effort.
Having dropped just one shot all day in the company of Spieth and Casey as he carded a 72, American Bryson DeChambeau leads the way by two shots from France’s Romain Langasque in the battle to be leading amateur.