Ireland's Shane Lowry off to a flier as Jordan Spieth cards 66 in US Masters
Defending champion Jordan Spieth assumed his customary position on top of the leaderboard with a brilliant 66 in the 80th Masters on Thursday.
Spieth, who was second on his debut in 2014 and claimed a first green jacket with a record-breaking performance 12 months ago, carded six birdies and no bogeys despite swirling winds on the opening day at Augusta National.
The 22-year-old, who is looking to become just the fourth player after Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods to successfully defend the year's first major championship, led from start to finish after an opening 64 last year and was quickly into his stride with birdies on the third, sixth and eighth to move into the outright lead.
Another birdie on the 10th was followed by crucial par saves from the trees on the 11th and over the green on the 12th, before the US Open champion two-putted the 13th for birdie.
Spieth, who set records for the highest number of birdies (28) and lowest 36 and 54-hole totals in Masters history last year, understandably kissed his putter in delight after holing from 15 feet for par on the 16th.
And the world number two then finished in style with a birdie from five feet on the last to reach 29 under par for his nine competitive rounds at the Masters. Assuming he is not overtaken, his leaderboard position after each of those rounds will read 12-3-1-2-1-1-1-1-1.
At six under par, Spieth led by three shots from playing partner Paul Casey, who carded six birdies and three bogeys in his 69, with last year's joint runner-up Justin Rose also three under with four holes to play.
Two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson was alongside Rose after birdies on the first, seventh and eighth, with world number one Jason Day also three under thanks to an eagle from 10 feet on the second and a birdie on the fifth.
Ireland's Shane Lowry completed the group in joint second after picking up a hat-trick of birdies from the second, although the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational champion was among the later starters due to face winds gusting between 30 and 35mph.
That was bad news for world number three Rory McIlroy in his bid to win a first green jacket to complete the career grand slam, the 26-year-old being the last man out shortly after 2pm local time.
And after making a birdie on the second, McIlroy had bogeyed the difficult par-three fourth hole to drop back to level par.
The first man out, American Jim Herman, had made a dream start to his debut after securing the last place in the 89-man field by virtue of winning the Shell Houston Open.
However, the former assistant professional at one of the courses owned by US presidential candidate Donald Trump then carded a hat-trick of bogeys from the fourth and eventually signed for a 75.
World number five Rickie Fowler fared even worse despite recovering from a double-bogey on the first with birdies on the second, third and fifth, the 27-year-old running up a triple-bogey eight on the 13th and a double bogey on the 16th in an opening 80.
But even that paled into insignificance compared to the nightmare suffered by Ernie Els, who took seven putts from inside three feet on the first to run up a sextuple-bogey 10, the highest score recorded on the 445-yard par four in tournament history.
Els, who thought a change in technique had helped him conquer the dreaded 'yips' earlier this season, looked set to save par after missing the green with his approach but hitting an excellent pitch.
However, the 46-year-old missed from three feet and needed six more attempts to get the ball in the hole, the last two being taken with one hand as his frustration understandably soared.
Els, who finished second at Augusta National in 2000 and 2004, somehow regrouped sufficiently to hit his approach to the par-five second to 25 feet, but three-putted for par to remain six over.