AUGUSTA, Ga. — On a day when the shifting of generations at Augusta National felt monumental and perhaps permanent — when aging legends assembled at dawn to hit ceremonial first tee shots and wondered aloud how many more years they had left, and when the 39-year-old dominant figure of a later generation tried to find the wayward parts of his game across 18 messy holes but wound up losing other parts instead — Jordan Spieth staked his claim as the future of golf.
It was a compelling, powerful statement, Spieth’s 8-under-par 64 in the first round of the Masters. Only 21 years old, he overpowered an unusually soft and vulnerable course in a way few in history have done, his score three shots clear of the field and just one shot off the 18-hole tournament record.
Even on a day when red numbers were plentiful — when 45-year-old former U.S. and British Open champ Ernie Els led the quartet of golfers at 5-under 67, when six other golfers shot in the 60s, and when even 65-year-old Tom Watson came home in 71 to become the oldest player in Masters history to shoot under par — Spieth’s round was another degree of brilliance.
“What a player,” marveled Els, who played with Spieth last week at the Houston Open. “You just cannot see this kid not [winning] many, many majors. I think he is by far the most balanced kid I’ve seen.”
Spieth is no overnight sensation. He was runner-up here to Bubba Watson last year, and already has a win and five other top-10s on the PGA Tour this year.
But never had his immense talent come together with an essential hint of good fortune to produce a moment like Thursday’s.
He birdied half the course’s 18 holes and needed only 25 putts to solve Augusta National’s famously treacherous greens. As for the good fortune, there were putts he thought were mis-struck that nonetheless trickled into the hole, a fortuitous kick off a tree at No. 13, another off the flagstick at 14.
Had he not made bogey from behind the green at the par-5 15th — where he was between clubs on his approach and immediately lamented his choice of a hybrid — he might have equaled Nick Price’s 1986 tournament record, matched in 1996 by Greg Norman.
“I capitalized on some really good breaks,” Spieth said. “When you’re getting good breaks, the hardest thing to do is grind and take advantage of them.”
The last time Spieth led the Masters, after seven holes in the final round a year ago, he promptly bogeyed the next two holes, ultimately losing by three to Bubba Watson. This year, hardened by that heartbreak and buoyed by some strong play over the past month, he has found himself trying to rein in his own expectations.
“I certainly thought about what I’m expecting coming in,” Spieth said. “Obviously, everyone wants to win this golf tournament. It leaves your name in history and a legacy, and the hardest thing to do is to put that behind you when you start on the first hole. . . . It’s tough to sleep on a lead here, and I saw that last year. But at the same time, I’m a lot more confident in the way that I can handle certain situations, and the patience level I have.”
At a long and eventful day, the dawn belonged to the “Big Three” of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, with their ceremonial tee shots, a reminder to everyone in the field — particularly Bubba Watson, Rickie Fowler and Keegan Bradley, who showed up well before their own tee times just to witness it — what kind of glory could be theirs if everything falls right.
The morning belonged to the masses, with six rounds in the 60s coming out of the groups that teed off before 10:30 a.m., when the greens were soft and the wind almost non-existent.
“It was there for the taking,” Tom Watson said of the course.
Mid-day belonged to Tiger Woods, if only because he is, if nothing else, golf’s most compelling spectacle, as confirmed by his wildly uneven 73. Woods, the winner of four green jackets but none since 2005, took a circuitous tour of some of Augusta National’s most untouched parts, his shots finding trees, water, pine straw and bleachers. Only some creative shot-making — much of it coming from his much-scrutinized short game — spared him from deeper ignominy.
“It’s my strength again,” Woods said of his short game. “That’s why I’ve busted my butt. That’s why I took time off. That’s why I hit thousands and thousands of shots to make sure that it’s back to being my strength.”
But late afternoon, and ultimately the lead at the end of round one, belonged to Jordan Spieth. And now, one is left to wonder whether this entire week, if not the future of golf itself, will soon belong to him as well.