By Simon Lewis, Augusta National
Jordan Spieth birdied the last at Augusta National to post a superb opening-round 64 at the Masters and throw down the gauntlet to Rory McIlroy and the rest of the field.
On an absorbing day of excellent golf at the first major of the season, 21-year-old Spieth, a rookie runner-up to Bubba Watson 12 months ago, took the 2015 Masters by the scruff of the neck to put three shots between himself and the field and leave world number one McIlroy seven adrift, after the Irishman opened with a less than spectacular 71 in his pursuit of the title that would give him a career slam of majors.
World number four Spieth, though, is the player with his Masters destiny in his own hands. He had jumped out to eight under with a four-under front nine of 32 and birdies at 12, 13 and 14. Spieth's charged was momentarily halted with a first bogey of the day, at the par-five 15th but he saved par at the short 16th and then birdied the par-four 18th for his 64, one outside the opening-round record low shot by Greg Norman in 1996 and the lowest round since Bo Van Pelt shot a 64 in the final round of 2012.
“To make nine birdies out here, you know, that's a dreamy round for me,” Spieth said. “It was a lot of fun.
“It's the first round. 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. And pleased to be in that position here again.
“I was leading last year at one point by a couple of shots on Sunday, it didn't go my way. I know how many things can happen in a major championship and I try and learn from last year, and stay patient these next three rounds.”
Spieth was right to sound a note of caution for after Thursday's opening round it is clear there is plenty of talent sitting behind Spieth that is capable of winning this Masters.
Texan Spieth had Australia's Jason Day breathing down his neck after the 2011 runner-up, third in 2013, went on a birdie charge down the back nine, jumping from one under par to six under with six consecutive birdies between the 11th and 16th, only to fall back into a share of second, his bogey at 17 leaving him with a 67.
Like Day, major champions Ernie Els and Justin Rose will start day two on five under alongside Charley Hoffman with Russell Henley and Sergio Garcia a further shot in arrears after opening 68s.
McIlroy has some work to do in Friday's second round but is confident he does not need to push too hard to achieve his goal of a first Green Jacket.
The 25-year-old from Holywood may not have a place at the top of the leaderboard just yet as plenty of pre-tournament fancies showed their hand early yesterday.
McIlroy, however, knows he has the game to muscle his way into the reckoning over the next three days and if he stays as patient as he did through a testing opening round of swirling winds and tough pin positions he feels his steady as she goes approach can pay dividends come Sunday afternoon.
“I haven’t put too much pressure on myself,” McIlroy said. “I obviously know what I can achieve this week but I’m not letting myself think about it too much. I’m just trying to play it one round at a time and today was a pretty good day.
“I feel like I can do better but I’m happy after day one and I’ll go out and try and do a little bit better tomorrow.”
It was a mixed day for the other Irish golfers in the field. Despite bogeying the last, Graeme McDowell posted his best round at the Masters since a 68 on the Sunday of 2012 when he carded a 71 to join fellow Ulsterman McIlroy on one under.
Honda Classic winner Padraig Harrington made his return to the Masters after missing out on an invitation last year and the three-time major champion was set fair for a strong opening until bogeys at the 16th and 17th left him with an even-par 72, one better than four-time Master champion Tiger Woods, making his comeback from a nine-week sabbatical to fix his game..
“Two late bogeys, so disappointing,” a downbeat Harrington said, adding, “16 and 17 weren't playing hard, so that's disappointing. It's always disappointing to make a few bogeys coming home, and two under would have been a very nice return. Two under, you're looking forward; level par, you're looking backwards. That's the way it is.”
Darren Clarke will go into today's second round of the Masters looking to convert chances into good scores after an opening, two-over-par 74.
“Not what I wanted but not too bad,” was Clarke's verdict, and what Shane Lowry would have given for “not too bad” as he tussled with Augusta National for the first time in competition.
The Masters debutant had had such high hopes of a strong start and the world number 46 made the turn in level par, only for disaster to strike the Offaly golfer.
Lowry bogeyed 10, then double-bogeyed the par-four 11th and also doubled the 13th with a seven that sent him to five over par. It might have looked like curtains there and then but Lowry is nothing if not dogged and birdies at the par-four 14th and par-three 16th offered respite, his solid finish to a three-over 75 that will have given him encouragement hope for a better second round on Friday.