By Adam Schupak - Augusta, Ga
As sure as the azaleas bloom each spring and the greens are lightning fast at Augusta National Golf Club, Jordan Spieth is at the top of the leaderboard after shooting a 6-under 66 in the opening round of the 82nd Masters. In fact, Spieth has held a share of the lead after nine of 17 starts during his Masters career.
"I'm not surprised about it at all," Rory McIlroy said. "He loves this golf course. He plays well around here, he always has. And he's going to be tough to beat this week."
But McIlroy posted his best opening round at the Masters since shooting 65 when he led through 54 holes and is lurking three strokes behind in his bid to complete the career Grand Slam. The Northern Irishman's 3-under-par 69, his third straight round under par dating back to the 2017 tournament, was one of 10 rounds in the 60s on Thursday, and good enough for a share of fourth place.
McIlroy said he planned to play more aggressively and his round began swimmingly when he drained a 19-foot birdie putt at the first hole. It marked the first time in 35 rounds at Augusta National that McIlroy made birdie at the opening hole, which played as the toughest hole last season.
McIlroy gave a stroke back at No. 7 when his approach sailed into the back bunker and he failed to get up and down. He bounced back with a birdie at the par 5, eighth hole and tacked on birdies at both of the par 5s on the back side at Nos. 13 and 15. But McIlroy was most proud of a trio of clutch par saves on the final three holes, including a 10-foot left-to-right downhill slider at 17.
"Big for momentum," McIlroy said. "I don't feel like I'm going out trying to get those two shots or whatever back tomorrow morning. I can just be relaxed going on to the first tee, not being too concerned about trying to get those birdies back. So, yeah, they were huge."
Huge also describes the expectations for Tiger Woods to win his first green jacket since 2005 and the number of patrons following him. The 14-time major winner noted that he received a standing ovation when he arrived at the practice range. Shockingly, Woods failed to birdie any of the course's four reachable par 5 holes, and he was in danger of falling out of the trophy hunt early. He already was 2 over when he pushed a 9-iron into Rae's Creek at the par-3 12th hole. But Woods salvaged a bogey and rallied with a pair of birdies to shoot 73, his second-highest score this season.
"I could have easily let the round slip away from me, but I got it back, and I'm right back in the tournament," he said.
The same cannot be said for defending champion Sergio Garcia, who gave new meaning to the old cliche that you can't win the tournament on Thursday, but you sure can lose it. Garcia crashed and burned at the par-5 15th, making a 13, the highest score ever recorded on the hole by two strokes. Garcia rinsed five balls in the water fronting the green.
"I don't know, it's the first time in my career where I make a 13 without missing a shot," Garcia said. "Simple as that."
Garcia's unlucky 13 also matched the highest score on any hole in Masters history. To his credit, Garcia made a 2 on the next hole, but signed for a 9-over-par 81.
If Garcia's octuplet bruised his ego, it paled in comparison to what Tony Finau endured. The 28-year-old American, who is competing in his first Masters, suffered a high-ankle sprain on Wednesday after making an ace at the seventh hole in the Par-3 Contest and losing his footing during his celebration. Finau dropped to a knee, reached for his left ankle and had to pop the bone back into place.
"I was kind of embarrassed," Finau said. "The last thing I wanted was to get pulled out of here on a stretcher celebrating a hole-in-one."
An X-Ray was negative and he underwent an MRI this morning before being cleared to play by a doctor. Even with his ankle taped and immobilized, Finau conceded he couldn't put his full weight on the foot, but in a testament to his mental fortitude, he still managed to shoot 68 and shared second with Matt Kuchar.
"It's nothing short of a miracle sitting here right now, just because, you know, when it happened, I felt like there probably could be something seriously wrong," Finau said.
For most of this season, there seemed to be something seriously wrong with Spieth's putter. It had gone ice cold. Spieth, one of the best with the short stick in the game, ranks 185th on the PGA Tour in strokes gained: putting this season. But he said he found a trigger in his stroke that began working last week at the Houston Open, where he tied for third. It worked again on Thursday. He peeled off five consecutive birdies beginning at 13 before scrambling for bogey at the last for a 66. Spieth is seeking his fourth major and second green jacket at the tender age of 24. He presents a formidable foe for McIlroy to overcome if he is to win his first Masters title. But McIlroy, who tees off at 10:42 a.m. local time, can take solace in the fact that eight of the last 10 winners of the Masters have opened with a round in the 60s.
"If I can continue to play like I have over the next three days I'll be pretty close," he said.