AUGUSTA, Georgia—The first round of the Masters featured soft greens and perfect weather, serving up an eclectic leader board in which the top 11 players have one important thing in common: None of them has won a green jacket, though a few have been close enough to know how much work remains. Jordan Spieth, a last year, holds a three-stroke lead after a macho 64 that included birdies on some of Augusta National’s toughest holes, including 4, 9, 10, 12 and 14. At 21 years and eight months Spieth is now the youngest player to hold the first-round lead at the Masters, breaking by three months the mark previously held by another boy wonder, Rory McIlroy. (Seeking his third straight victory in a major and the career Grand Slam, McIlroy, 25, opened with a so-so 71 in which he hit only 12 greens in regulation.)
Spieth has been the hottest player in golf over the last month, with a win and a pair of seconds, and this round was a monument to his scoring ability and mental toughness, to say nothing of good fortune. His tee shot on the par-5 13th clanged off a tree and bounced back into the fairway; after laying up, he hit a wedge to kick-in distance. At the next hole, his approach from under a pine was coming in hot but doinked the flagstick and stopped dead for another gimme. “I didn’t drive the ball particularly well, didn’t strike the ball great, I capitalized on some really good breaks today,” said Spieth, whose 64 was a shot off the course record.
Among the four players tied for second are Charley Hoffman, who went off in the first group of the day, and Jason Day, who had near-misses here in 2011 and 2013. Day, 27, torched the back nine with five consecutive birdies beginning at the 12th. Also in at 67 is one of Augusta National’s heartbreak kids, Ernie Els, who has six top-eight finishes at Augusta, including a pair of seconds. Just last month Els, 45, had an emotional interview with Sports Illustrated in which he talked about his Masters career in the past tense, saying, “I did put quite a bit of pressure on myself there. I always felt that I was really made for that course. It was to my detriment, unfortunately. It didn’t quite work out for me there. Sometimes I wish I could’ve approached it a little differently, but it is what it is.”
And now? “Yeah, this is wonderful,” Els, who has four majors on his Hall of Fame resume but is winless worldwide since 2013, said after his round. “But you can’t even be dreaming about Sunday yet.”
Tiger Woods, meanwhile, can still dream of Saturday, but he’ll need a solid second round to make the cut after a 73 left him in 42nd place. (The low 50 and ties earn a spot on the weekend, along with anyone within 10 strokes of the lead.) Woods’s round was extraordinary in its normalcy: There were no yips or other signs of existential crisis, all of which constitutes spectacular progress for a golfer who was staring into the abyss only two months ago. In fact, Woods’s work with the wedge was one of the strengths of his game on a day when he was sabotaged by a series of loose iron shots and a few very wild drives. (A chunky tee shot on the 12th hole left him in Rae’s Creek, but he salvaged a good bogey with a deft pitch across the water.) “You know, I’m still in it. I’m only nine back,” said Woods, typically refusing to give an inch. He was grinding on the range long after the sun set on Thursday.
Even before his latest heroics Spieth was already looking like the best young American to come along since Woods. Should he continue this torrid pace he would be the second-youngest Masters champ, behind only Tiger. In his Masters debut last year, the apple-cheeked Texan earned a spot in the final pairing as a coleader on Sunday. He was so intimidated he went out and birdied four of the first seven holes, forging a two-stroke lead. But Spieth lost control of his emotions and his ballstriking coming in and got run over by Bubba Watson. “I played pretty much the entire round feeling different than I’ve ever felt on the golf course,” Spieth says. He was plagued by Sunday stumbles throughout the rest of the year but in December, at the Australian Open, he shot one of the rounds of the year, a 63 on a blustery day to blow away a world-class field. “Just had a level of patience I had not had when I was in contention prior to that,” Spieth says. “I was trying to want it too bad.” Next came a blowout win at the World Challenge, and he has carried the momentum into Augusta.
Now comes the ultimate test, to see if this kid can graduate from talented tease to genuine superstar. The last player to hold a three-stroke lead after the first round was Darren Clarke, in 2003, but he self-immolated over the next three rounds. Spieth knows how difficult the coming days will be. “I need to play some really, really good golf,” he said. “And I need to hit my driver and I need to hit my irons better than I did today to have a chance to win this week.” He did allow that “it’s nice to put myself in a position now where I can really stay patient, dig in and keep giving myself opportunities and not worry about anything else. I can pretty much control my own destiny from here.”
Destiny is a funny word around the Masters. Els once seemed destined to win a green jacket. So did Lee Trevino, Greg Norman, Johnny Miller, Tom Weiskopf and Davis Love III, but none of them got it done. (Not yet, anyway.) No course in golf dishes out heartbreak quite like Augusta National. Spieth got a taste of that last year, but his greatest advantage going forward may be how little failure he’s experienced here. Says Els, “I still feel intimidated by the course. The less you’ve played it, the less damage is in the back of your head.”