AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — Jordan Spieth is off to another great start in the Masters because of the way he finished.
His two biggest rivals were left behind because they couldn’t.
Spieth capped off the only bogey-free round in the wicked wind at Augusta National by making a 15-foot par putt on the 16th hole and hitting an 8-iron into 6 feet for birdie on the final hole for a 6-under 66 and a two-shot lead, the first step in his bid to win another green jacket.
Jason Day couldn’t keep pace. On the verge of tying for the lead late in the round Thursday, Day dropped five shots in three holes and had to settle for a 72. Rory McIlroy pulled to within two shots of the lead until he made two bogeys over the last three holes.
When a day of big wind, big numbers and far too many putts for Ernie Els was finally over, it felt as though nothing had changed from last year.
Spieth is the man to beat at the Masters.
He was atop the leaderboard for the fifth straight round, and he has had at least a share of the lead in six of the last seven rounds at the Masters. One more and he matches the longest streak since Arnold Palmer in 1960 and the opening two rounds of 1961.
And just like last year, now it’s time for the rest of the field to try to catch him.
“We’re through one round,” Spieth said. “There’s going to be a lot of different changes. There are going to be a lot of different birdies, bogeys and everything in between. We know how to win this golf tournament, and we believe in our process. And if the putts are dropping, then hopefully it goes our way.”
He had a two-shot lead over Danny Lee and Shane Lowry. Three shots behind was a group that included Sergio Garcia, Justin Rose and Paul Casey.
Still in the mix were Day and McIlroy, though both gave up a lot of ground in a short amount of time.
Day’s troubles began when he three-putted for bogey on the par-5 15th, pulled his tee shot into the water on the par-3 16th for a triple bogey and then sailed the green on the 17th and dropped another shot. When he finished, he was six behind the defending champion.
“I’ve just got to slowly try to inch my way back into this tournament if I can, and be patient with myself, and hopefully I’m there by Sunday,” Day said. “But it’s a major championship. Things happen. And unfortunately, it happened at the wrong time today.”
Right when Day was falling apart, McIlroy holed an 18-foot eagle putt on the 13th and looked to be on his way in his bid to win a green jacket and complete the career Grand Slam. He was within two shots of the lead until he three-putted the 16th for bogey and missed the 18th green to the right, was plugged in a bunker and dropped another shot for a 70.
“If somebody had given me a 70 on the first day, I would have taken it,” McIlroy said. “I’m a little disappointed in the way I finished.”
It could have been worse.
Bubba Watson, a two-time champion, had a 41 on the back nine and shot 75. He wasn’t even low Watson — 66-year-old Tom Watson, in his last Masters, shot 74. Adam Scott, coming off two victories in Florida last month, opened with a 76.
Rickie Fowler had his worst score ever at Augusta National by posting an 80, with 44 of those shots coming on the back nine.
Spieth simply picked up where he left off a year ago.
Never mind that he discovered a hairline crack in his driver during Wednesday practice and had to find a backup for the opening round. Or that he was hearing questions about what was wrong with his game from not having seriously contended in the last two months.
Spieth was at Augusta National, a course that feels like home for the 22-year-old Texan.
“I would have signed for 2 under today and not even played the rough, knowing the conditions that were coming up,” Spieth said. “Just scored extremely well, which is something I’ve been struggling with this season. If I can kind of straighten out things with the iron play, hopefully we’ll be in business. But yeah, I’m extremely pleased with that round today. I felt like we stole a few.”
For all the birdies — none longer than 12 feet — the pars make Spieth look so tough to beat.
He settled himself early with a beautiful pitch across the first green to 2 feet. He pumped his fist with a tough pitch over the bunker and to the upper tier on No. 4. He gambled with a 4-iron through a tiny gap in the trees on the 11th and made it pay off with another par. On 16, he kept his card clean by ramming in a 15-foot par putt.
By the end of the day, no one could do better.
Nine players couldn’t break 80, a group that included Els, who took six putts from 2 feet on the opening hole for a 9. He played the rest of the day at 1 over.
“It wouldn’t matter if I putted with a stick,” Els said. “When snakes are going off in your brain, it’s difficult.”