AUGUSTA, Ga. — After endless hype, speculation and prognostication, "the most anticipated Masters of our lifetime" (so said Jim Nantz!) commenced under blue skies at Augusta National.
Through 18 holes it is living up to the hype.
Jordan Spieth is doing Jordan Spieth things; the 2015 champ rung up five consecutive back-nine birdies on his way to a six-under 66 and a two-shot lead.
Rory McIlroy is in the hunt after a 69. So, too, are Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler, both of whom signed for 70s. Tiger Woods, making his first major appearance in 965 days and playing in front of galleries that seemed to extend to Atlanta, scratched and clawed his way to a one-over 73. He seemingly hit more pines and patrons than fairways and greens but didn't quite play himself out of contention.
"I could have easily let it slip away," Woods said after making two late birdies, at 14 and 16, to offset an otherwise untidy round.
Then there was Tony Finau, who after rolling his ankle in the Par-3 Contest staged one of the most heroic performances this side of Tiger's shredded-knee-and-broken-leg magic act at the U.S. Open a decade ago.
It case you missed it (consider yourself lucky if you did), Finau was the guy who in a NSFW moment popped his ankle out of its socket in a post-ace celebratory trot on Augusta's par-3 course on Wednesday. The diagnosis: high ankle sprain, no broken bones. The injury could easily have knocked Finau out of the main event — just as a freak accident sent Dustin Johnson packing a year ago — but with his doctor's blessing, some painkillers and a heavy dose of grit, Finau decided to give it a go.
And go he did. With his ankle taped, the strapping 28-year-old put his embarrassing tumble behind him and made five birdies on his way to a four-under 68.
"There's no way I would have thought I'd be in this position," he said.
No one else did either.
Tonight's plan? "Elevate and ice," he said, smiling.
But the day belonged to Spieth, as it so often does at Augusta National. Spieth has shot 66 or better four times in his 17 Masters rounds and is a combined 32 under par. With the way he has been putting (he's ranked 185th in Strokes Gained: Putting this season), there were no guarantees that his Masters mojo would continue. Really, he has done nothing well on the greens, from three-footers to 30-footers and everything in between. But long hours working on his stroke — he said Thursday that he has "found a little trigger" — appear to have him back on track.
Spieth, who was the last man on the practice green Wednesday evening, declined to say exactly what that trigger is but he did say that's he "significantly" more comfortable than he was just three weeks at the WGC-Match Play in Austin.
"I had some really tricky putts today from inside of six feet, putts that I had to play outside the hole, and made a lot of them in the middle of the hole, which was a big confidence boost," he said.
You wouldn't have detected it by watching Spieth's scoring blitz, but Augusta didn't exactly roll out the welcome mat for the players in Round 1. The greens were firm and mean and the pins seemed to have been placed by a superintendent coming off a rough night.
"You need to be really careful with some of the pins," said Bernd Weisberger, a 32-year-old Austrian playing in his fourth Masters. "Some have changed from the previous first rounds here at the Masters … which some of them pretty tricky to get the ball close to."
Added Fowler, "I felt like there was a lot of times out there you're just trying to make a par and move on."
Which brings us to your defending champion, Senor Sergio Garcia, who played his way out the tournament on a single horrifying hole, the par-5 15th. In a scene ripped from Tin Cup, Garcia spun four — cuatro! — consecutive wedges off the putting surface and into the pond fronting the green. The resulting 13 on his card was the highest score ever recorded on Firethorn in this tournament and matched the worst single-hole score in a Masters, period.
When asked to assess his historic octuple, Garcia sounded less than impressed by the hole location paired with the speed and firmness of the sloping green. "It's the first time in my career where I make a 13 without missing a shot," Garcia said. "Simple as that."
So Garcia won't be slipping on his second green jacket this week but several other big names are in position to win their first: Matt Kuchar, who made four birdies in the last six holes to post a nifty 68; Henrik Stenson (69), Patrick Reed (69) and Haotong Li (68).
Li, a 22-year-old Chinese sensation with two European tour wins, is playing in his first Masters, but if he was nervous it didn't show. He had a quiet front nine with a single birdie at the par-5 8th but found his rhythm on the back nine, birdieing his way through Amen Corner before adding two more at 15 and 16. Li, who gamely handled his post-round interview in English, was asked when he first thought he might have the talent to play in the Masters.
"I don't really know actually because since — since very beginning, I will — I just watch on TV all the time. Never miss once on TV for the Masters. It's quite unreal for myself, and to be here, play golf here."
Buckle up, Haotong. There is much more golf to be played.