AUGUSTA, Ga. – Jordan Spieth picked up where he left off at Augusta National.
After a dominating victory a year ago, the 22-year-old Texan threw up three early birdies on a breezy Thursday at Augusta National to claim the top spot on the leaderboard.
Spieth set a tournament record with 28 birdies in 2015, romping to his first major title with an 18-under score. That sparked one of the great years in golf history, as he went on to capture the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, just missed out on a playoff in the British Open, and took the runner-up spot behind Jason Day at the PGA Championship.
Day is now the top-ranked player in the world and came into the Masters as the betting favourite.
Spieth might have something to say about that.
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He birdied the third hole, rolled in a 10-footer for another birdie at the sixth, and took advantage of the par-5 eighth to become the first player to reach 3 under. He made the turn with a 33, one stroke ahead of Daniel Berger and a pair of Englishmen, Paul Casey and Matthew Fitzpatrick.
Even though the course was softened overnight by strong thunderstorms, the wind whipping across Augusta National made it tough to go low. It didn’t seem to bother Spieth, who is trying to become only the fourth player to win back-to-back titles.
Tiger Woods was the last to do it in 2001 and 2002. The others: Jack Nicklaus and Nick Faldo.
On the 30th anniversary of his sixth and last Masters title, Nicklaus joined Gary Player to hit the ceremonial opening tee shots shortly after sunrise. Arnold Palmer could only watch, having decided not to swing the club this year because of health issues.
The 86-year-old Palmer did ride a cart out to the first tee, offering that familiar wink and thumbs-up. He also posed for a picture with his two longtime rivals and friends, who combined to win seven straight Masters in the 1960s and collectively won 34 major championships.
Player, the 80-year-old South African who said he prepared by doing 1,300 sit-ups and crunches, belted his drive down the middle. The 76-year-old Nicklaus hit it higher and shorter.
“Gary won his tournament this year,” Nicklaus said with a grin. “I hit a pop-up.”
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“I wouldn’t be too concerned about me outdriving you too much,” Player replied, “because you did it to me for 50 damn years.”
But this moment was all about Palmer.
“It was gratifying and sad, because everything shall pass,” Player said. “But it was nice to have him on the tee. I dedicated my first tee shot to him in respect. It’s a very special moment.”
After the original “Big Three” stepped aside, the 80th Masters began for real.
Rickie Fowler’s pursuit of his first major title got off to a rocky start, with a drive into the trees leading to a double-bogey at No. 1. He bounced back with three birdies before a bogey at the seventh sent him around the turn with an even-par 36.
Day and four-time major champion Rory McIlroy had afternoon tee times.