AUGUSTA, Ga— The first round of the 2016 Masters felt like an extension of the 2015 Masters. It was that kind of day for the wondrous 22-year-old, Jordan Spieth, who a year ago brought Augusta National to its knees with an 18-under-par, record-tying romp.
On a cool, breezy, challenging Thursday that produced a field scoring average well over 74, Spieth posted a six-birdie, three-putt-free 66 to take the 18-hole lead over New Zealander Danny Lee and Irishman Shane Lowry. Rory McIlroy, in hot pursuit of the career grand slam, got within two of the lead through 15 holes before posting a two-under 70.
Spieth’s 66 was two strokes higher than his opening salvo a year ago, but given the taxing conditions, he characterized his effort as “one of the best rounds I’ve played.” On a day, no less, when his ball-striking was merely “average-ish.” (His word.)
There’s rarely cause for concern about Spieth’s short game (it was exceptional again on Thursday), but an equipment crisis did raise questions about whether his driver would cooperate this week. While practicing on Wednesday, Spieth noticed a hairline fracture on the face of the Titleist 915D2 with which he won five times in 2015. Spieth kept his old shaft but experimented with a variety of clubheads before settling on a newbie. Alas, he hit eight of 14 fairways in the first round. “I did hit a lot of 3-woods,” he said, “but my driver didn’t cost me anything.”
Among the other favorites in the loaded field for this 80th Masters was world No. 1 Jason Day. Playing in the windier afternoon wave, Day announced his presence at the 2nd hole, where he rolled in an 11-footer for an eagle-3. Day turned in 31, but disaster struck at the par-3 16th where a rinsed his tee shot led to triple-bogey 6. Day finished with an even-par 72, but was 10 strokes worse on the back nine.
Some things never change at the Masters: azaleas in full bloom, patrons parked in folding chairs, pimento cheese slapped on white bread. Spieth making himself at home is fast becoming a new tradition. In 2014, in his first Masters appearance, he never shot worse than par, zipping around in five under for the week. Last year he made Augusta National Golf Club look like Augusta Municipal Golf Course, tying Tiger Woods’s 72-hole scoring record and making a record 28 birdies. Add Thursday’s 66 to Spieth’s Augusta resume and he has played his last five rounds here in a blistering 24 under. And in nine career rounds, he has never been over par.
“I just kind of have a unique eye for this course,” Spieth said on Tuesday.
A unique feel too. A sixth sense, you could say. As he and one of his playing partners, the buzzy amateur Bryson DeChambeau, strolled up the 18th hole on Thursday, Spieth told the Masters rookie, “I don't know what it is about this place, I just love putting here. I can see the break. I can see the lines.”
Said DeChambeau, “I was quite impressed by that.”
As word spread of Spieth’s play, the galleries following his group swelled. Atop the grandstand at the par-5 15th, a security guard asked a pair of golf writers to give up their seats for some green coats who had clambered up the stairs to watch the Jordan Show. “Members are coming up,” the guard said sternly. Sadly they weren’t rewarded with any fireworks—Spieth laid up and made a ho-hum par—but those patrons who stuck with the young Texan for the remainder of his round were rewarded with his birdie at 18.
As the day progressed, the conditions toughened. With gusts of up to 25 mph whipping though the property, the dogwoods and pines swayed like hula dancers, and the pretty young women in sundresses surely regretted their wardrobe choices.
Rickie Fowler, the fourth member of the vaunted Big Four, was one of the day’s victims. Playing two groups in front of Spieth, Fowler set the tone for his dreadful opening round with a double bogey at the 1st. He clawed back to even par at the turn, but then made a triple bogey at the par-5 13th and a double at the 16th before signing for an 80. Orange, it appears, is not the new green, at least not this year.
Four-time major champion Ernie Els, who has been battling an excruciating case of the yips, six-putted the 1st green, resulting in a viral video that warranted a NSFW disclaimer. When the horror show at the 1st was over, Els carded a 9, the highest score on the opening hole in Masters history. (Jeev Milkha Singh and the three other players who made an 8 on the par-4 can breath a sigh of relief.)
Spieth’s 66 was brilliant, but here’s a philosophical question worth pondering: What’s more impressive, a 22-year-old shooting 66 in the first round of the Masters, or a 66-year-old-shooting 74? That’s what Tom Watson accomplished in his 43rd and final Masters appearance. “I think 74 is not bad for old folks. I can't complain,” Watson said before adding a classic Watson-ism: “Every round of golf I've ever played, though, I've always said it could have been better.”
Spieth can relate. “I feel like my game’s been trending in the right direction, I just haven’t gotten scores out of how I felt I’d been playing,” he said after his round. “If I can straighten things out with the iron play, hopefully we'll be in business.”
Which means the rest of the field could soon be out of business.