AUGUSTA, Ga. _Tiger Woods was 21 years old once, brash, brilliant and full of the fearlessness of youth. When he won the Masters at that age, by a record 12 shots in 1997, it felt less like a young player’s first major title than the launching of an era. The rest of the field that week, including some of the best golfers of their generations, was left to ponder a future spent scrounging for the crumbs that might fall off Woods’s teeming plate.
This week is beginning to feel a lot like that one.
The new phenom’s name is Jordan Spieth, also 21 years old and seemingly destined for greatness. On Friday, he completed the best opening 36 holes in the 79-year history of the Masters, firing a 6-under-par 66 to go along with Thursday’s 64 for a total of 14-under 130. No player in the history of the four major championships — and we are talking about 143 years, in the case of the British Open — has ever been 14 under through 36 holes. The 130 total matches a majors record set by three other players.
“It’s cool,” Spieth said with practiced nonchalance. “Anytime you can set a record here is pretty awesome.”
In the regular tournament — which is to say, the one being played within the historical norms of Masters scoring — Charley Hoffman, a 38-year-old PGA Tour veteran, is in the lead at 9-under 135, two shots clear of three players: Dustin Johnson, whose 67 on Friday included a record three eagles; 2013 U.S. Open champion Justin Rose; and 37-year-old Englishman Paul Casey. Forty-four-year-old Phil Mickelson and 45-year-old Ernie Els, with nine major titles between them, are at 138 and 139, respectively.
Unfortunately for Hoffman and his nearest pursuers, they don’t give a green jacket to the B flight champion. The reality heading into the weekend is that only one player — Hoffman, who had made the cut only seven times in 14 previous majors before this week, with a best finish of 27th (the 2011 Masters) — is within seven shots of Spieth.
“It’s similar,” said Els, when asked whether Spieth’s week is starting to remind him of Woods’s in 1997. “It’s very, very impressive.”
Among the masses left in Spieth’s wake these past two days is Rory McIlroy, the 25-year-old Northern Irishman and pre-tournament betting favorite who shot 71-71 and trails by 12. With four majors already to his name — including an eight-stroke win at the 2011 U.S. Open as a 22-year-old — McIlroy appeared best positioned to become the Tiger of his generation. Now, at the very least he knows he will have Spieth to deal with for decades.
Or maybe it will ultimately be the other way around.
Then there is Woods himself. Now 39 and struggling just to get back to competitive relevancy — never mind major championship contention — Woods posted a 69 on Friday (his first sub-70 round in the Masters since 2011) to get himself to 2 under for the tournament, despite managing only one birdie on the course’s four vulnerable par-5s. For a player who has spent most of the past 18 months injured, lost or otherwise non-competitive, it represents a welcome bit of progress.
“Very proud of what I’ve done, to be able to dig it out the way I have,” Woods said. “I was at a pretty low [point] in my career, but to . . . put it together and [get] in a position where I can compete in a major championship like this is something I’m very proud of.
“I’m still right there,” Woods insisted. “I’m 12 back, but there’s not a lot of guys ahead of me. And with 36 holes here to go, anything can happen.”
Delusionary former champions aside, the fact is Spieth has shown no signs whatsoever of vulnerability. He has made a remarkable 15 birdies over the first two rounds — the same number Bubba Watson made in the entire tournament when he won here last year.
That week, Spieth shared the 54-hole lead with Watson and led outright with 11 holes to play but stumbled down the stretch and lost by three — an experience that now, based on the events of the past two days, appears to have served as a sort of apprenticeship in the art of surviving Augusta National with a lead.
“The hardest thing to do is put aside wanting to win so bad, and just kind of [let] my ball striking and putting happen,” Spieth said. “I got off to a great start and had a chance to win last year on Sunday. I’d like to have that same opportunity this year.”
On Friday, it seemed as if Spieth had birdie chances on every hole and never even flirted with bogey. He needed only 25 putts Friday — the same as Thursday — and missed only two putts inside of 10 feet all day.
“It’s brilliant, the way he’s playing,” South African Louis Oosthuizen, one of seven golfers at 3 under, said of Spieth. “What he’s doing is pretty special.”
Spieth is a ball talker of unparalleled intensity, his every tee shot seemingly accompanied by some version of “Get up!” or “Get down!,” “Dig!” or “Bite!” When his drive on the par-5 13th on Friday drifted right, he yelled, “Get lucky!” then after thinking about it for a second, corrected himself: “Or don’t get unlucky, I guess.”
He got lucky, or rather, he didn’t get unlucky. On the edge of the tree line, going for the green in two was out of the question. But he was able to lay up into prime position and made birdie when he put his pitch shot to eight feet and drained it.
Spieth came up 18th to a loud, long ovation, and he acknowledged it with only the weakest wave of his putter and the slightest and briefest of smiles. No need to do any more than that. He hadn’t won anything yet.