AUGUSTA, Ga. — It took most of Thursday to get in gear, but by dinnertime there they all were, still on the course at Augusta National Golf Club, the shadows growing longer, the Masters growing more appetizing. Phil Mickelson walked up the 18th fairway, tugging on his cap in appreciation. Rory McIlroy rolled in a putt at the 17th, then strutted his most confident strut to the final tee box. Tony Finau, a Masters rookie who nearly became a Masters tragedy, was off answering questions about how he put his first appearance here in absolute jeopardy, yet shot 68 anyway.
But the new reality at the Masters is that until Jordan Spieth has recorded his score, you just don’t know what the theme of the day will be. While all the above transpired, Spieth – playing in the penultimate group of the first round – softly landed his tee shot within a few feet of the par-3 16th. When he drained the putt, he pumped his fist. When he picked the ball from the bottom of the cup, he had, to no one’s surprise, the lead.
Thus, this Masters for which we have waited – tapping our fingers nervously, humming a tune to pass the time – provided precisely what we hoped. Spieth is the leading man, for sure, because he opened the fifth Masters of his already prodigious career with a 66 to lead by two. While all those other characters went about what, by comparison, seemed to be pedestrian business, Spieth came close to obliterating what looked like a crowded leader board by reeling off five straight birdies on the back nine.
This is, of course, all by design. Spieth is 24, and he already has three major championships – including the 2015 Masters — to his name.
“We build plans for the year to peak at certain times,” Spieth said. “And I believe that not just here at Augusta, but the major championships going back a number of years, I’ve played really well.”
Here, he is again, a factor at Augusta as reliable as the azaleas.
So gather your thoughts, and get ready for a Friday that seems likely to be delicious. So many of the flavors are there. Spieth’s two-shot lead is over Finau, whose story this week currently outweighs the accomplishments of his golf career, and Matt Kuchar, the perpetually smiling longtime tour pro who has never won a major. But the group who managed 3-under 69s included McIlroy, who would complete the career Grand Slam with a victory here; Swedish star Henrik Stenson, who has no record to speak of at Augusta but is perhaps the best ball-striker in the galaxy; Patrick Reed, the feisty American for whom majors seem in the offing; and Haotong Li, a 22-year-old from China who had never played here before last week.
Go on down the list. Mickelson, a three-time champ, missed a short putt at 18 to join that group, but is still 2 under, as is Rickie Fowler, chasing his first major as his youth runs the other way. Even Tiger Woods, making his first start at a major championship in three years, plugged the leaks in a round that might have gotten away and turned in a 73 – not near the top, but not out of it, either.
“By the end of the week, this will be a pretty packed leader board the way the golf course is set up,” Woods said. “They have it right where they want it. It’s really hard to run away with it, but it’s also really easy to lose it out there.”
When Woods said that, Spieth was still on the front nine. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the rules about this place, the norms for others, might not apply to him. It’s worth remembering that his first three appearances here resulted in the following finishes: second, first, second – the last only because he inexplicably melted down at the exasperating par-3 12th in the final round, dumping a pair of shots in the water. Last year, he slipped to 11th – a position that would represent Stenson’s best Masters finish.
If anything was determined Thursday, it’s that what appeared to be a wide-open event now has a clear favorite. Spieth has now played 17 career rounds in the Masters. He has led alone or shared the lead after nine of them.
“I’ll always have demons out here,” he said. “But I’ll always have a tremendous amount of confidence here. Once you win here, you have a tremendous advantage over anybody who hasn’t won here.”
That’s not a direct shot at anyone, but it does apply. Finau, a 28-year-old from Utah whose most significant victory to date was the 2016 Puerto Rico Open, was on his way to making himself the central story line of the first round before Spieth’s fireworks. On Wednesday, he played the Par 3 Contest for the first time, and when he aced the seventh hole of that just-for-fun event, he threw his hands in the air and began jogging down toward the green – backward.
Perhaps halfway there, disaster – or nearly so. Finau rolled his left ankle, and badly. He did not dislocate it, though when he bent over and shoved it back upright, it looked like that’s precisely what happened. Rather, an MRI showed he strained ligaments, suffering a high ankle sprain.
Anyone who saw the injury had to wonder whether Finau would be able to tee it up Thursday. Put Finau in that group, too.
“When I woke up this morning, nothing short of a miracle, if you ask me,” he said. “I could barely put any pressure on it. I could barely walk.”
And yet, had the tumble not been replayed on national television, his play would never have revealed the severity of the issue. He made the first of his six birdies at the second, and he was off. Equally impressive: On a day when several players failed to close out their rounds properly, Finau got up-and-down by rolling in a nice par-saving putt at 18, closing out an insane 24 hours with a steady pulse.
“The emotions have been pretty crazy,” Finau said. “I looked forward to this week for a really long time, and to see the possibility of that slipping away …”
He couldn’t finish the thought. There is, of course, much more work ahead. Now, Finau has played a round in the Masters, but his next will be near the lead – with all those other characters swarming around. Foremost among them is Spieth. At 18, after those five birdies in a row, he somehow lost his tee shot well left. After he punched out, he needed to launch a 3-wood toward the green, and hope to get up-and-down for bogey.
“I’ve had to do some interesting things on 18 in my career here,” Spieth said. The most recent, now, is chipping from the area left of the green to tap-in range, a bogey that somehow sustained momentum, leaving comfortably in front.
“If you get off to a good start,” Spieth said, “you’re in control of your own fate, vs. needing some help.”
So after one round, Jordan Spieth is in control of his own fate – to a degree. But there are 54 holes remaining, and the cast behind him, with some of the best names the game has to offer, might be the kind that can prevent him from making this a romp.
Live updates: Spieth rolling
Back at the scene of his greatest triumph in golf, Jordan Spieth was totally in his element Thursday at The Masters.
The 24-year-old former champion owns the first-round lead after firing a 6-under 66 that included a run of five straight birdies on the back nine. An errant tee shot on No. 18 caused the 2015 champion to give a shot back, but Spieth, who finished second at Augusta in 2014 and 2016 (and already has three majors under his belt), flashed the dominant form that seems to put him at home atop the Augusta National leader board.
Spieth leads by two shots over Tony Finau, and Matt Kuchar, who dazzled the patrons down the stretch, playing his final six holes in 4 under par. Rory McIlroy leads a group of seven players who finished the day at 3-under 69, including Henrik Stenson and Patrick Reed.
Other notable scores include Ricky Fowler and former champs Phil Mickelson and Zach Johnson each at 2 under par, last year’s runner-up Justin Rose at even, and Tiger Woods and No. 1 player in the world Dustin Johnson at 1 over par.
Finau looks plenty healthy after Wednesday mishap
Tony Finau’s Wednesday was not for the faint of heart. After spinning in an ace on the 7th hole of the Par-3 contest, he jogged down the fairway, took one bad step and dislocated his left ankle.
He would then reach down coolly to pop it back into place, then unceremoniously withdrew from the event.
Thursday, playing on that sore ankle, Finau ran out to the lead at Augusta National Golf Club, with a 4-under 68 in the first round of the Masters. After a bogey at the first, he birdied four of his next seven holes, including the par-five 8th, which he set up with a smooth chip from off the edge of the green to within a club-length of the cup.
Jordan Speith pulled even with Finau at 4 under par after back-to-back birdies on Nos. 13 and 14. Five players, including Henrik Stenson, Patrick Reed and Charlie Hoffman, are all one shot back.
Sergio sputters, puts five in the drink
The defending Masters champion, Sergio Garcia, just dropped down the leader board in spectacular fashion with a meltdown on the 15th hole.
Garcia went into the water not once, not twice, but five times on his way to carding a 13 on the par-5 15th, nicknamed Firethorn.
That tied the most strokes ever recorded on any single hole in the history of the tournament.
He finished the hole at 10-over par for the tournament after, mercifully, making a nine-foot putt for octuple bogey, which is now a thing. He fell to 86th place out of 87.
Garcia was the third favorite to win heading into the opening round, according to win probabilities calculated by The Post’s Neil Greenberg. With one hole, his chances to make the cut dropped from 83 to 3 percent.
Changes at the top
Garcia wasn’t the only one to stumble on No. 15. Marc Leishman, Tiger Woods’s playing partner (more on Woods just below), who held the lead for much of the day, double-bogeyed the hole to fall to 2 under.
Charging to the lead in his place at 4 under were Henrik Stenson, who birdied Firethorn, and Charley Hoffman who carded three straight birdies at Nos. 12-14.
Most intriguing: Tony Finau, who dislocated his ankle Wednesday while celebrating a hole-in-one during the par-3 tournament, was one stroke back at 3 under through 10 holes.
Tiger finishes one-over in first round back at Augusta
AUGUSTA, Ga. — Wearing black from head to toe, Tiger Woods stepped to the tee at the Masters for the first time in three years on Thursday morning. He promptly sent his drive left into the gallery.
“It was incredible. The people were ecstatic, they were into it,” he told ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi after his round. “Then I go ahead and pull a 3-wood up the side.”
Woods recovered nicely, though, sending his second shot rolling up to the green, but it was that type of morning. A birdie at the par-4 third hole was followed by a bogey at the par-3 No. 4 — at 16 over for his career, it’s been his Augusta nemesis — and then another at No. 5.
Woods drew the biggest galleries in the morning, and perhaps some of the most sophisticated in appreciating golf, too. When his delicate pitch shot finished about six feet from the third hole — a middling result — it drew a response of “that’s all right” from one fan and polite-but-restrained applause from the whole gallery. Not a roar, just a patter.
“Dilly, dilly,” said one fan in the gallery, appropriate to the mild applause.
However, when Woods sank his putt for his first birdie of the day, the crowd exploded with enthusiasm and yells of “Go, Tiger” and “Come on Tiger.”
At the long, difficult par-three fourth hole, one of the most difficult distances in golf to estimate because of swirling winds, Woods shot seemed to blank the flag, but came up short in the front bunker. He shouldn’t feel too bad. Jack Nicklaus, and others, have been so badly fooled by the gusts in the pines that encircle the hole that many shot have landed 30 yards short of that bunker.
Woods missed a nine-foot par putt to bogey the hole and fall back to even par. As so often happens at the Masters, a player’s fate at one hole — either good or bad — is immediately replicated at the next hole. This is the course, and the event, for momentum shifts. Woods bogeyed the par-four fifth and relinquished any momentum he’d gained at the third.
Even the par 5s at Nos. 2 and 8 offered no relief: Woods, a combined 26 under par on Augusta’s longest holes for his career, could only find par on both. At the turn, Woods sat at 1 over par for the day. Another bogey followed at No. 11, when his tee shot went way right and his attempt at a recovery ended up in the gallery.
Marc Leishman, Woods’s Australian playing partner, fared much better. Three birdies over the first nine holes gave him an early lead over, among others, 55-year-old Vijay Singh, the 2000 Masters champion who was at 2 under through 12 holes. None of Woods’s Augusta playing partners has ever held a lead after playing a Masters round with the four-time winner. Leishman would become the first.
Woods slipped back further to 3 over after the turn with back-to-back bogeys on Nos. 11 and 12, then a sloppy par on the par-five 13th.
Woods bounced back to finish with a birdie on the par-three 16th and four-shot pars on Nos. 17 and 18. He finished with a one-over 73.
“I definitely didn’t score as well as I played,” he told Rinaldi. “I hit the ball better than my score indicates. I feel good. This golf course will take it out of you.”
Mickelson finds the trees
Phil Mickelson teed off in one of the last groups of the day. After he and playing partner Rory McIlroy birdied the first hole, Mickelson found adventure on the second, winding up in the trees and finishing with a bogey on the par-5 hole.
Day finds the drink
Jason Day’s drive at the first hole went right into the trees and dropped down into the full beer cup of an Augusta “patron.” When Day arrived to find his ball, the fan was informed that he would have to give Day the ball — currently at the bottom of his beer — so he could identify it properly, then play it.
The fan did the only logical thing — at least in Georgia, in the morning, on a golf course. He chugged the beer as the gallery cheered. It was Day who finished the hole a little tipsy, making bogey. That was followed by bogeys at the fifth and sixth holes; Day started the day 3 over par after six holes.
Gary and Jack kick it off
Before 8 a.m. Thursday, the gallery around the first tee at Augusta National Golf Club was five, eight, even 10 deep. And when the two men emerged from the clubhouse — Jack Nicklaus in a red sweater, Gary Player in all black — they rose as if at church, pew after pew after pew.
Player, the South African legend who won three Masters, and Nicklaus, the all-time great who has six green jackets among his record 18 major titles, opened the 82nd Masters as honorary starters Thursday morning, each hitting a straight and true tee shot 15 minutes before the tournament began.
“It’s always a thrill to come out to the first tee,” Nicklaus said. “It’s always a thrill to be part of the golf tournament.”
Fred Ridley, Augusta National’s new chairman, introduced each man — “two of the greatest golfers who have ever lived,” he said — to an adoring crowd. The sign at the tee, which normally lists the players in each group, read “82 Gary Player” above “78 Jack Nicklaus,” indicating each man’s age.
Nicklaus’s ball didn’t quite reach Player’s halfway up the hill at the first.
“Don’t worry about me outhitting you now,” Player said at a news conference later. “You out-drove me for 50 damn years.”
This is the second year Nicklaus and Player performed the duty of opening the Masters since the death of Arnold Palmer. In 2016, the four-time Masters champion joined Nicklaus and Player one final time, though he simply sat in a chair, no longer able to hit the shot. Last year, some six months after Palmer’s death, the chair remained, draped with Palmer’s green jacket.
The tournament began soon after with the first of 29 threesomes — Austin Cook, Ted Potter Jr. and Wesley Bryan. Ryan Moore, in the second group of the day, birdied the first two holes to take the earliest of leads, although he later fell back. Woods, the four-time champion playing here for the first time since 2015, begins his quest at 10:42 a.m. in a group just ahead of defending champion Sergio Garcia, who tees off at 10:53 a.m.
How to watch
This week isn’t just about Woods. Many of the world’s best players enter the week in strong form. Add in the Woods intrigue, and you’ll want to know how to watch all weekend, a tricky proposition, since this is the tightly controlled Masters. Still, there are a few options. (All times are Eastern.)
- ESPN has live TV coverage from 3 until 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday and on WatchESPN. As of around 11:30 a.m. Eastern, the network was showing Woods’s shots on a delayed basis.
- CBS takes over on TV from 3 to 7 p.m. Saturday and from 2 to 7 p.m. (or the conclusion of play) Sunday. Its online coverage can be found at CBS AllAccess. The network will have a preview show (“On the Range”) 8:30-10:30 a.m. Thursday and Friday; 11 a.m.-1 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday on CBS Sports Network and CBSSports.com.
- CBSSports.com will also have live streams of featured groups, as well as coverage from Amen Corner (holes 11, 12, 13) and holes 15 and 16. Featured group coverage starts at roughly 10 a.m. Thursday; Amen Corner coverage begins at 10:45 a.m. and holes 15 and 16 coverage begins at 11:45. Consult the full live stream schedule here.
- The Golf Channel has “Morning Drive” on TV and online from 6 to 8 a.m. Thursday and Friday, and “Live from the Masters” on TV and online beginning at 8 a.m.
- AT&T/DIRECTV has coverage of featured groups, Amen Corner and the 15th and 16th holes starting at 3 p.m. each day (at 2 p.m. Sunday) on Channels 703, 704 and 705. There’s a 4K package from Amen Corner on Channel 105 and the 15th and 16th holes on Channel 106 starting at 10 a.m. on Thursday and Friday; at noon Saturday and Sunday for Amen Corner and 12:30 for the 15th and 16th holes. You also can stream the coverage.
- Masters.com offers much of the same live coverage, too.
The full list of tee times for Thursday and Friday is here, along with breakdowns of the top groups.
The weather report
Temperatures climbed to the 60s on a sunny Thursday afternoon, and it will remain sunny and should be even warmer Friday, though the winds will pick up a bit. Saturday’s third round could get a little dicey with rain and even more wind in the forecast, especially in the morning. Whether it will be enough to halt play remains to be seen, but it very well could. The wet weather should help soften Augusta’s notoriously tricky greens.
The skies will clear a bit for Sunday’s final round, though it will be cool with highs in the mid-60s.
The Post’s Barry Svrluga identifies five players who could win this weekend, including Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson, Jordan Spieth, Bubba Watson, and yes, Woods. Who could win but won’t? Jason Day heads that list. Read the rest of Svrluga’s breakdown here. The Post’s Neil Greenberg, meantime, gives the highest win probabilities to Johnson, Justin Thomas and Garcia. His explanation is here. Josh Planos analyzes which six holes may decide Woods’s fate.
You might want to wait until the end of the first round to make your choice. As Kyle Porter of CBS Sports points out, the last 12 Masters winners have been in the top 10 after the first 18 holes. The last one outside the top 10? Woods, who was tied for 30th after the first round in 2005 before storming back to win his fourth and most recent Green Jacket.
Bogage, Boren and Bonesteel contributed to this report from Washington.
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