Thursday 27 October 2016

Masters 2015: Jordan Spieth's first-round charge puts Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods in the shade

James Corrigan

Published 10/04/2015 | 08:41

Jordan Spieth of the U.S. points to the direction his drive is heading off the 14th tee during first round play of the Masters golf tournament at the Augusta National Golf Course in Augusta, Georgia. REUTERS/Jim Young
Jordan Spieth of the U.S. points to the direction his drive is heading off the 14th tee during first round play of the Masters golf tournament at the Augusta National Golf Course in Augusta, Georgia. REUTERS/Jim Young

They have come to grant golf’s young King his immortality, but an even younger prince is storming the ramparts. Jordan Spieth, just 21, cast Rory McIlroy and all others into the shade of the pines here with a 64 which made him the youngest first-round leader in Masters history.

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It was an astounding display from Spieth, but it could hardly be classed as a shock. Spieth threatened to break Tiger Woods’s youngest-ever Masters champion record last year before finishing second to Bubba Watson. He has progressed from there to world No 4 and currently holds the tag of world’s hottest player. In his past three tournaments, he has had two seconds and a first.

But that was on the regular tour and there is nothing regular about Augusta in April. It could well be that this eight-under magnificence turns out to be a defining day for the future of US golf. As far as this major goes, Spieth is three shots clear of England’s Justin Rose, South Africa’s Ernie Els, Australia’s Jason Day and another American in Charley Hoffman.

And with the likes of Sergio García on four under, Paul Casey on three under, Phil Mickelson on two under and McIlroy on one under this is a leaderboard rich on quality. Tiger Woods, meanwhile, is back on one over and, although he is well-placed to make the weekend, with Spieth in full cry, the Woods era will predictably be written off.

For now the kid is in control what makes it all the more commendable was that Spieth produced in the trickier conditions of the afternoon. It had been just about perfect for the morning brigade. The rain earlier in the week had softened the greens and the absence of wind rendered the course, in the statement of Tom Watson, “there for the taking”.

The incredible 65-year-old was true to his word, shooting a 71 and becoming the oldest player to break par at the Masters. It was the same score as McIlroy and the defending champion, Bubba Watson, and, even considering Spieth’s sensational feat, was a contender for round of the day. “At my age that’s a minor miracle,” Watson said.

Rose’s effort was rather more expected, despite his poor start to the year. There was only one bogey in his 67 and for a while it looked as if he would lead at the end of a Masters first day for the fourth time. But ­Spieth marched in with nine birdies – the most since Woods in 2011 – and a single bogey. And it says so much about his standards that he will look back and believe he should have been at least one better, although he did acknowledge that he received a few breaks.

“I’m excited with the start,” Spieth said. “A couple of things did go my way, but I did play well. I’m going to try and not be so anxious. It’s actually my first round under 70 here, so I’m pleased with that.”

Spieth was almost metronomic on the front nine, reeling off four birdies with the minimum of fuss and, seemingly effort as well. An eight-footer on the second, a 14-footer on the fourth, an up-and-down on the par-five eighth and then a 11-footer for good measure on the ninth. It added up to a 32 on the front nine and was extremely impressive.

Four birdies then followed in the next five holes. The highlights were a tee-shot to seven feet on the famous par-three 12th and an approach from the trees on the 14th, which hit the flag and came to rest within three feet. “I wasn’t sure what happened there with all the cheers,” Spieth said.

That took Spieth to eight under and with the par-five 15th to follow the first ever 62 in a major seemed eminently possible. “I was in the zone and didn’t know how many under I was until I saw a leaderboard on 15,” he said. “I knew if I could get a birdie there I’d have a chance to get to 10-under and that would be special.”

He should not have looked. From the middle of that 15th fairway, ­Spieth played his one bad shot, flying the green and flirting with the water a full 20 yards behind the putting surface. From a horrid position he took four to get down and, slightly flustered, parred the next three holes.

On the 18th, Spieth steeled himself for one last effort, holing from 20 feet and punching the air appropriately. He is a ridiculously quick learner and evidently took plenty from the jitters he felt on the 15th.

Certainly Els was impressed. When the 44-year-old eagled the 15th, he took the advantage on six under. But Els, who can count only Greg Norman as a more frustrated Masters bridesmaid, bogeyed the 18th to fall back to the group on five under. And while it would be a wonderful story if Els, twice a runner-up, could finally land a Green Jacket he knows exactly what is facing him in Spieth.

 “Jordan is 21, and what a player,” Els said. “You just cannot see this kid not winning many, many majors. I think he is by far the most balanced kid I’ve seen. I mean, there are some really great kids out there. But Jordan’s got that tenacity to him. He’s really got a fighting spirit, and he’s the nicest kid in the world. He’s right to have very high goals.”

Nobody’s goals here are set higher than McIlroy’s. The 25-year-old has the chance to join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tiger Woods in the club who have won all four majors (as well as Woods and Hogan in the club who have won three majors in a row).

And after a sloppy opening six holes, in which he hit only two greens in regulation, McIlroy was pleased with how he fought back. There was a bogey on the 11th, where he missed a short putt, but he was solid coming in, with birdies on both the 13th and the 15th.

“It was nice to get that first round out of the way. It was a long time coming. I feel like I can relax and find my rhythm now,” McIlroy said. “It could have been better; it could have been worse, but I’m pretty satisfied.

“If I can drive the ball like I did today, and hit a few irons shots closer and convert a few more then I should be right there.” McIlroy said that before Spieth slipped into his ominous gear, but he will now be aware of the scale of the task confronting him. Spieth is fulfilling every billing.

As is Woods in a way. Having not played since February and having shot a career-high 82 at Phoenix on his penultimate start, no one knew what to expect from the player ranked world No 111, regardless of some encouraging form in practice.

And we are still none the wiser. Woods was very erratic, mixing in a lousy three-putt on the third, with a stunning recovery shot on the seventh. As ever, Woods has the galleries enthralled, but he must produce something very special these next three days to win his 15th major.

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