AUGUSTA, April 8 – Jordan Spieth picked up where he left off 12 months ago with a flawless opening 66 Thursday, boosting his hopes of becoming just the fourth man to successfully defend the Masters crown.
The Texan, just 21 at the time, was the first wire-to-wire winner in 40 years at Augusta National last year, and his bogey-free opener brought up the possibility he could do so again as he led by two strokes at the end of the first round.
Only Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods have managed back-to-back wins in the Masters.
Spieth was the only player in the 89-strong field not to cough up a bogey on a breezy day in the first of the year’s four majors.
The American, who opened with an eight-under 64 en route to his record-matching victory last year, reached the turn in 31 after birdies at the fourth, sixth and eighth and he added three others down the back nine at 10, 13 and 18.
Taking advantage of fine early playing conditions as the 80th Masters got underway, Spieth was in the clubhouse and able to sit back and see if top rivals Jason Day and Rory McIlroy could keep pace with him during the afternoon’s action.
They could not.
His day’s best means that he has been the leader after six of the nine Masters rounds he has played at Augusta National since his debut in 2014, including the last five in a row.
“I feel like my game has been trending in the right direction, I just haven’t gotten scores out of how I felt I’d been playing,” said Spieth.
“That normally just comes down to putting. Certainly made a lot of putts today. If I can kind of straighten things out with the iron play, hopefully we’ll be in business.
“But, yeah, I am extremely pleased with that round today. I felt like we stole a few.”
Underlining the quality of Spieth’s round was the fact that only seven other players were able to score in the 60s.
Adopted New Zealander Danny Lee got closest after a 68, 13 strokes better than in the last round he played at Augusta as an amateur in 2009, and he was joined at 4-under by fast-improving Irishman Shane Lowry.
Having missed the cut on his debut last year, Lowry said that he had to stay in the moment and not ger carried away with his opening effort.
“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,” he said.
A stroke further back were three Englishmen Paul Casey, Justin Rose and Ian Poulter alongside Spain’s Sergio Garcia and Soren Kjeldsen of Denmark.
– ‘One of the toughest days’ –
Career Grand Slam seeker McIlroy could have joined them on that mark, but he plugged his approach to the last in a bunker and took a bogey as a punishment.
“One of the toughest days I’ve ever seen around Augusta National,” Casey said of the windy playing conditions. “I was impressed by everything (Spieth did) today. That was a flawless round of golf.”
It was an odd round for world number one Day, the tournament favorite who is aiming for back-to-back major titles after taking the PGA Championship last year.
He charged out in 5-under 31 but then limped back in at 5-over 41 to end where he started at level par.
“Obviously it’s frustrating, but I am not too disappointed because I thought I played well in general,” he said. “Even if I gave up five shots in three holes I am only six back after one round.”
McIlroy, with four majors under his belt already, eagled the 15th to get to 4-under but promptly three-putted to hand one back and then bogeyed the last to fall to 2-under.
“I am a little disappointed the way I finished, but 70 was not a bad score out there and in the 60s would have been really good,” he said.
Three-time former winner Phil Mickelson came in with a level 72, but 2013 winner Adam Scott struggled all day for a 76 as did Bubba Watson for a 75.
– Struggles for Fowler –
There were struggles, too, for another top American hope, Rickie Fowler, who was moving along smoothly at even par through nine, but then bogeyed 10 and took an eight at the par-5 13th, where he hit into Rae’s Creek in front of the green.
Fowler went into the water again at the 16th for a double bogey and finally limped in with an 80, leaving him with a mountain to climb just to make the cut.
“Golf’s tough. It’s a fine line, especially at this place,” a crestfallen Fowler said.
But that was nothing compared to the horrors that beset four-time major winner Ernie Els, who had an astonishing nine at the par-4 first hole, virtually wrecking his tournament in the space of a few minutes.
It was the worst-ever score at the opening hole in the history of the tournament.