Catch Jordan if you can! Spieth takes early Masters lead (again)
By Stephanie Wei under The Masters

Some weren’t sure what to expect this week from Jordan Spieth at the Masters, where, a year ago, he shattered records en route to his wire-to-wire victory. For the ungodly standards he’s set, he went into Augusta National without really showing his A-game, so some wondered how he would handle the pressure as defending champion with all eyes on him this time around.

Well, per usual, Spieth answered, letting his clubs do most of the talking — he posted an impressive, bogey-free, six-under 66 to open this year’s Masters campaign and take an early two-shot lead over Danny Lee and Shane Lowry.

Spieth has now held at least a share of the lead in the last six out of seven rounds at the Masters, dating to his co-lead after 54 holes in 2014, when he eventually finished runner-up to Bubba Watson. He has led the last five consecutive rounds, putting him in elite company as only the second player to do so — Arnold Palmer led six straight rounds, from the first round in 1960 to the second of 1961. Spieth is the first player in Masters history to record par-or-better rounds in his first nine round — he’s a combined 29-under par.

“I would have signed for 2‑under today and not even played the round, knowing the conditions that were coming up,” said Spieth. “I got a lot out of the round with what I felt like was kind of average‑ish ball‑striking. Just scored the ball extremely well, which is something I’ve been struggling with this season.

“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. 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.”

Spieth basically picked up right where he left off a year ago as the first-round leader (again). No big deal that he discovered a crack in his driver late Wednesday afternoon and had to find a last-minute replacement. Or that he hadn’t — god forbid — seriously contended in a tournament since winning the Tournament of Champions in early January.

“I’m still trying to figure out why people think I’ve been struggling,” said Spieth, laughing. “We’ve finished in the top‑20 eight out of the last nine events, what am I supposed to do?”

That’s what happens after you win two straight majors and five PGA Tour events in a year — the expectations become grandiose and perhaps a bit absurd. But luckily, Spieth has the capacity to handle such on both the mental and physical fronts. And he’s so comfortable at Augusta National that it’s practically his home course.

He didn’t even have his best with regard to ballstriking on Thursday, which makes him feel even more at ease.

“The fact that I didn’t make any bogeys with kind of the loose — I just didn’t feel confident after the first couple mid‑iron shots I hit,” said Spieth. “I didn’t feel confident over the ball with irons.

“The good news out here is so much of it is feel‑based, where you have so many different slopes you’re hitting off of.  You have a downslope off one hole, an upslope right‑to‑left on the next.  You’ve got to work.  It’s most important what the ball does right at impact, and I felt like I was still there.

“It was really the par‑3s and the flat lies that I struggled with today, which are the driving range shots, the shots I hit a million times.  I feel it was extremely special to stay bogey‑free on a day like today at the Masters.”

Wait, are you sure it’s not Groundhog Day? The field will need to post a low one Friday just to keep Spieth in their sights.

“As long as we just recognize as a team, our team personally, that it’s one round and through the course of the four, there’s going to be a lot of different changes,” said Spieth, surely saying the same words he’s bashed into his head a gagillion times. “There are going to be a lot of different birdies, bogeys and everything in between.

“We just stay patient with what we’re doing.  We know how to win this golf tournament, and we believe in our process, and if the putts are dropping, then hopefully it goes our way.”

Just like last year. Only three other players have successfully defended a Masters title: Tiger Woods (2001-02), Nick Faldo (1989-90) and Jack Nicklaus (1965-66).

Meanwhile, Jason Day, who got off to a hot start with a 31 on the front nine, couldn’t keep pace and lost five shots in a mere three holes. He three-putted for bogey on the par-5 15th, then he pulled his tee shot into the water hazard guarding the 16th green, which led to a triple-bogey. On the following par-4 17th, he flew the green and failed to get up-and-down to save par to drop one more shot, settling with an even-par 72.

“To be honest, I played great golf,” said Day. “If I went 41 on the front side and 31 on the backside I’d be just celebrating.  “Obviously, it’s just a number.  I’ve got to understand that the next two days are going to be very difficult with the wind conditions.  And 6‑under is leading and I’m at even par.  I’ve just got to slowly try to inch my way back into this tournament if I can, and be patient with myself and hopefully I’m there by Sunday. 

“But it’s a major championship.  Things happen.  And unfortunately it happened at the wrong time today.  But it is what it is, and I’ve got to move on and push forward and try and get back in the tournament.”

Rory McIlroy shot a somewhat lackluster two-under 70 — he showed signs of briliance, but then just lost steam coming in and bogeyed two of the last three holes to kill the momentum.

“I felt like I let a couple of shots get away on 16 and 18,” said McIlroy, who is trying to achieve the career grand slam this week. “But again, I’m sitting here and if someone had have given me a 70 on the first tee, I probably would have taken it.  It was a tricky day. 

“But being in the position on the 16th tee where I was 4‑under par, thinking, 16, if you hit a good shot and it feeds down it’s a birdie chance.  17’s downwind.  I was probably thinking on the 16th tee I could sneak in another one or two out of this round and to start going the other way is disappointing.

“I feel like I can get off to a good start tomorrow and pick those shots up again in the first few holes and just get off and running again.”

He’s pleased that he’s within striking range of Spieth still.

“(Spieth is) very, very comfortable here,” said McIlroy. “You look at the way he played in 2014 and 2015 and look at what he’s done this year, it’s a golf course he’s comfortable on and he’s going to be tough to beat this week. 

“But I feel I’m going to have to play good golf, but I feel there’s enough good golf in me to that I can reel him in over the next 54 holes.”

Finally, Ernie Els wasn’t the only big name who had a rough go on Thursday. Rickie Fowler looked dumbfounded as he saw his round blow away from him on the back nine. After opening with a double-bogey, he bounced back quite nicely, with three birdies in the next four holes, but then it slowly started to slip through his fingers, and bam! — he dunked it into the water on the par-5 13th and ended up making a triple-bogey 8.

He let the bleeding continue, losing more shots on the 14th and 18th holes with bogeys and managed to sneak in a double-bogey on the par-3 16th, which all added up to 80 at the end of the day. Yikes.

“Golf’s not an easy game,” said Fowler, who didn’t have much to say afterwards.