AUGUSTA, Ga. – Jordan Spieth had everything go his way Thursday in the Masters, so he should have known how the shot would turn out without even asking.
In the lead and in the trees, he slashed a 7-iron toward the green and started barking instructions at the golf ball until he saw it bound onto the 14th green. He never saw it smack into the pin and settle a few feet away. He only heard one of the loudest cheers of the afternoon.
“What happened?” Spieth said to his caddie.
With six birdies in a seven-hole stretch, Spieth flirted with a major championship record he didn’t know existed and atoned for his lone mistake with one last birdie putt for an 8-under 64. It was the best opening round at Augusta National in 19 years, gave him a three-shot lead and stole plenty of buzz from the Grand Slam bid of Rory McIlroy and the return of Tiger Woods.
“It’s one of the better rounds I’ve ever played,” he said.
That wasn’t the case for McIlroy, though his round wasn’t awful. The world’s No. 1 player saved par four times on the front nine and scratched out a 71. Woods had three birdies in his round of 73, and while it was the first time since 2007 that he shot over par in the first round of the Masters, it was looked upon as progress. Most peculiar about his first round in two months was that his short game saved him.
But the day belonged to Spieth, a 21-year-old Texan who at least got into the Masters record book as the youngest to lead after the first round.
An even more significant record was within his reach, and he didn’t even know it.
Spieth went to 8 under with that birdie on the 14th hole, and then he blistered a driver down the fairway on the par-5 15th hole, just 228 yards to the hole. That’s when he started thinking about a 62 because he had never shot 10-under par as a pro.
But he hit hybrid over the green and wound up making bogey. Only later did Spieth realize that 63 was the best score in any major, and only two players had done at the Masters – Greg Norman in the first round of 1996 and Nick Price in the third round of 1986.
“So that’s a little frustrating,” he said before he paused with a wry smile. “But I’m certainly OK with the day.”
It wasn’t that big of a surprise.
Spieth shared the 54-hole lead last year at Augusta with Bubba Watson until a four-shot swing over the last two holes of the front nine as Watson pulled away. Plus, he might have been the hottest player coming into this Masters.
In his last three events, he won, finished second and lost in a playoff. The biggest challenge he faced was to keep his expectations from growing taller than a Georgia pine, and to make sure he was well rested.
Whatever the formula, it worked.
“What a player,” Els said after a 67, his best score at the Masters since Phil Mickelson beat him with a birdie on the last hole in 2004. “You just cannot see this kid not win many, many majors. I think he is by far the most balanced kid I’ve seen. Jordan, he’s got that little tenacity to him and he’s really got a fighting spirit, and he’s the nicest kid in the world. … He’s a special kid.”
Els played the par 5s in 5 under and briefly had the lead until Spieth went on his birdie spree. Hoffman finished with an eagle and two birdies over his last four holes.
Day looked to be the most dangerous. Twice a contender at Augusta in the last four years, he made five straight birdies on the back nine until he lost momentum with a bogey from the bunker on the 17th. Still, three shots behind after one round wasn’t a bad place to me.
McIlroy has more work.
Coming off successive major victories to close out last year, McIlroy needs only a green jacket to become the sixth player with the career Grand Slam. He has never started a Masters with this much historic significance in play, or this much attention.
McIlroy smashed his opening drive right down the middle, The rest of his game was a bit off.
He hooked a drive into the hazard on the par-5 second and had to scramble for par. He stubbed a chip short of the green on the 350-yard third hole and had to fight for another par. McIlroy picked up two birdies on the par 5s on the back nine to salvage his start.
“It could have been a round that got away from me,” McIlroy said. “I just stayed patient, realizing that it’s a 72-hole tournament. It was good to get into red numbers.”
That wasn’t that difficult to achieve on a day of soft conditions that made even the tough pin positions a little more accessible. Thirty players in the 97-man field broke par.
Woods wasn’t one of them.
He opened with a three-putt bogey from about 40 feet. He had one bad adventure on the ninth and escaped with bogey. But there was not a sign of struggle from his short game, except for a bunker shot on the par-3 fourth hole that went over the green.
Most telling was early on the back nine. Woods saved par from the bunker right of the green on No. 10. Facing one of the scariest shots on the course, he pitched beautifully to save par on the 11th. And after a tee shot into the water on No. 12, his wedge to 2 feet allowed him to make bogey.
“It’s my strength again,” Woods said.
But he was nine shots behind, and that was going to take a strong effort to overcome.