Masterful show from ‘flawless’ Jordan Spieth but Ernie Els hits early disaster at Augusta
Jordan Spieth picked up where he left off 12 months ago with a flawless opening 66 on Thursday, boosting his hopes of becoming just the fourth man to successfully defend the Masters crown.
The Texan, just 21 at the time, was the first wire-to-wire winner in 40 years at Augusta National last year, and his bogey-free opener brought up the possibility he could do so again as he led by two strokes at the end of the first round.
Only Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods have managed back-to-back wins in the Masters.
Spieth was the only player in the 89-strong field not to cough up a bogey on a breezy day in the first of the year’s four majors.
The American, who opened with an eight-under 64 en route to his record-matching victory last year, reached the turn in 31 after birdies at the fourth, sixth and eighth and he added three others down the back nine at 10, 13 and 18.
Taking advantage of fine early playing conditions as the 80th Masters got under way, Spieth was in the clubhouse and able to sit back and see if top rivals Jason Day and Rory McIlroy could keep pace with him during the afternoon’s action.
They could not.
His day’s best means that he has been the leader after six of the nine Masters rounds he has played at Augusta National since his debut in 2014, including the last five in a row.
“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,” said Spieth.
“That normally just comes down to putting. 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, yeah, I am extremely pleased with that round today. I felt like we stole a few.”
Four-time major champion Ernie Els was struggling to regroup and searching for answers after a humiliating record quintuple-bogey nine on the first hole.
The 46-year-old South African nicknamed “The Big Easy” found nothing simple at all on the 445-yard hole named Tea Olive, time and again unable to sink short putts.
“I can’t explain it. I’m not sure what I did,” Els said. “I don’t know how I stayed out there. But you love the game and you’ve got to have respect for the tournament and so forth. But it’s unexplainable.
“It’s very tough to tell you what goes through your mind. It’s the last thing that you want to do is do that on a golf course at this level. So, it’s very difficult.
“I’m not sure where I’m going from here. I don’t know. We’ll see.”
Els six-putted the par-four opening hole to open his 22nd Masters appearance, his nine-shot agony one stroke worse than the prior highest score on the hole, the eights shot by Olin Browne and Scott Simpson in 1998, Billy Casper in 2001 and India’s Jeev Milkha Singh in 2007.
“I couldn’t putt with a stick,” Els said. “You make some stuff up in your brain. It’s difficult. It’s something that holds you back from doing your normal thing. I don’t know what it is. I can go to that putting green now and make 20 straight three-footers. And then you get on the course and you feel a little different and you can’t do what you normally do. So it’s pretty difficult.
“Hopefully I can pull it back and play some decent golf.”
His total on the opening hole was originally scored as a 10 by running scorekeepers, but Augusta National announced after Els completed his round that the score had been “incorrectly recorded” and should have been a nine.
Even Els admitted he couldn’t keep track of the humbling misery as it unfolded miss after miss, swatting putts from inside two feet that failed to fall time and again.
“I can’t explain it,” Els said. “I couldn’t get the putter back. I was standing there. I’ve got a three-footer. I’ve made thousands of three-footers and I just couldn’t take it back.
“And then I just kind of lost count after. I mean, the whole day was a grind.”
Els finished with a eight-over 80 to share 81st in a field of 89. He birdied the fifth and par-five 13th but took double bogey at 11 and closed with back-to-back bogeys.
Underlining the quality of Spieth’s round was the fact that only seven other players were able to score in the 60s.
Adopted New Zealander Danny Lee got closest after a 68, 13 strokes better than in the last round he played at Augusta as an amateur in 2009, and he was joined at four-under by fast-improving Irishman Shane Lowry.
Having missed the cut on his debut last year, Lowry said that he had to stay in the moment and not get carried away with his opening effort.
“I’ve just got to kind of give myself a slap in the face and get myself back into reality and try to get down to business and keep hitting good shots and see where that leaves me at the end of the week,” he said.
A stroke further back were three Englishmen – Paul Casey, Justin Rose and Ian Poulter – alongside Spain’s Sergio Garcia and Soren Kjeldsen of Denmark.
Career Grand Slam seeker McIlroy could have joined them on that mark, but he plugged his approach to the last in a bunker and took a bogey as a punishment.
“One of the toughest days I’ve ever seen around Augusta National,” Casey said of the windy playing conditions. “I was impressed by everything (Spieth did) today. That was a flawless round of golf.”
It was an odd round for world number one Day, the tournament favourite who is aiming for back-to-back major titles after taking the PGA Championship last year.
He charged out in five-under 31 but then limped back in at five-over 41 to end where he started at level par.
“Obviously it’s frustrating, but I am not too disappointed because I thought I played well in general,” he said. “Even if I gave up five shots in three holes I am only six back after one round.”
McIlroy, with four majors under his belt already, eagled the 15th to get to four-under but promptly three-putted to hand one back and then bogeyed the last to fall to two-under.
“I am a little disappointed the way I finished, but 70 was not a bad score out there and in the 60s would have been really good,” he said.
Three-time former winner Phil Mickelson came in with a level 72, but 2013 winner Adam Scott struggled all day for a 76 as did Bubba Watson for a 75.
There were struggles, too, for another top American hope, Rickie Fowler, who was moving along smoothly at even par through nine, but then bogeyed 10 and took an eight at the par-five 13th, where he hit into Rae’s Creek in front of the green.
Fowler went into the water again at the 16th for a double bogey and finally limped in with an 80, leaving him with a mountain to climb just to make the cut.
“Golf’s tough. It’s a fine line, especially at this place,” a crestfallen Fowler said.