Some major championships are slow burners. The first one of the year, it is claimed, fully gets under way on Sunday’s back nine.
How the opening day of the 80th Masters laughed in the face of cliche. Every strand of excitement associated with the arrival of the finest players in the world in Georgia was so emphatically justified. Fittingly, in what is fast becoming his playground, Jordan Spieth plays the Pied Piper. Again.
It took just three hours and 47 minutes for the touchpaper to be lit at Augusta National, until the moment Spieth claimed the outright lead for the first time.
Scoreboards updated, spectators roared and Spieth’s fellow competitors glanced up, almost with acceptance. Saying the 22-year-old has form around this iconic venue, after all, is akin to pointing out Red Rum once had a fondness for Aintree. At six under par, an advantage of two, catch him if you can. Bookmakers were seen diving into azaleas for cover.
“I would have signed for two under today and not even played the round, knowing the conditions that were coming up,” admitted Spieth, which will add probable insult to his opponents’ injury. “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. That normally just comes down to putting.
“I 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 I am extremely pleased with that round. We know how to win this golf tournament and we believe in our process.”
Spieth marched from the 18th green with Ryder Cup-esque roars ringing in his ears. The conditions to which the Texan referred, with winds gusting in increasing strength through the day, meant nobody in the afternoon wave was likely to head him. At least, it looked that way until the world No1, Jason Day, reached the 10th tee in just 31 shots.
The Australian was supposed to accelerate from this point and thereby challenge Spieth. Instead he stumbled spectacularly, playing three holes from the 15th in six, six and five, or five over par. He signed for a 72 with a disbelieving expression.
With Day – temporarily, perhaps – hamstrung, it was left to the third member of golf’s vanguard to hunt down Spieth. Rory McIlroy will be frustrated with 70, despite playing out in the sternest of Thursday’s weather. McIlroy’s denouement will trigger his angst; he made bogey at the last from an ideal fairway position, and had been four under after 15.
Danny Lee’s 68 makes him the first New Zealander in 20 years to sit inside the Masters top five. Lee shot 81 in his last Augusta round, six years ago. On the final green Shane Lowry came agonisingly close to claiming second on his own but had to make do of a share with Lee. Lowry had been five under at the turn.
Justin Rose didn’t receive the pre-Masters attention he was due, which probably suited the Englishman just fine. He was joint runner-up to Spieth here in 2015. Rose will start round two at three under, the same score as his compatriots Paul Casey and Ian Poulter. Rose’s birdies at the 1st, 3rd and 10th were all thanks to converted putts from outside 20ft.
“Last year was obviously a big confidence boost but Augusta National has always been a place where I’ve felt comfortable,” said Rose, who has played 15 of his last 19 major rounds under par. “I’ve always believed that I have a great game plan and a great strategy on how to play this golf course. “I’ve always felt comfortable on the greens here. It’s a place that just as soon as I get inside the gates, I enjoy.”
Poulter’s prominence is pertinent with the Ryder Cup, and his ongoing bid to qualify for a place on the European team, in mind. Casey’s likewise but for a different reason: he is ineligible, of his own volition, for Hazeltine in September. Should he win the Masters, that scenario will turn into quite the public pickle. Sergio García’s back nine of 32 meant he joined the 69 group.
There were Thursday casualties: Adam Scott surprisingly could do no better than 76; Rickie Fowler, another of the pre-tournament favourites, slumped to an 80, aided by an eight at the 13th.
Fowler at least merited 10/10 for pragmatism thereafter. “Golf is tough,” said the Californian. “It is a fine line, especially at this place.
“I play a decent back nine and I’m three under. It can go either way and it can definitely go the other way, the high number way, a lot easier than it can the low.”
Ernie Els suffered an even more harrowing experience. The South African thankfully has four major titles under his belt already, as what transpired on the 1st at 1.20pm could edge him towards retirement. Els was marginally over the green in two, played to 3ft, and proceeded to six putt. His nine was the highest score ever recorded on that hole in a Masters tournament and was, in truth, an excruciating episode.
That Spieth was in the process, once again, of making this game look so blissfully easy only made Els’s woes the more glaring. “I’m not sure where to go from here,” said Els. To the bar, perhaps.
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