AUGUSTA, Ga. – Jack Nicklaus once predicted Tiger Woods would win more green jackets than he and Arnold Palmer combined.
No one is claiming that Jordan Spieth will surpass the duo’s total (10) just yet, but it is starting to feel like the 22-year-old is playing a different Augusta National than the rest of the field.
Spieth carded his ninth consecutive round at Augusta National of even par or better, a 6-under 66 that lifted him to a two-stroke advantage.
That’s not to say Spieth’s title defense got off to a stellar start.
On the eve of Thursday’s first round Spieth cracked the face of his driver and he needed an 11th-hour tuning session to get a suitable backup in the bag for opening day of the major championship season.
Things started to look even more dicey when he teed off just before 10 a.m. (ET) and found himself in a precarious position after his approach shot at the first sailed wide right leaving him an unenviable chip.
But Spieth scrambled for a par that probably won’t be remembered come Sunday. But it certainly had the desired effect.
“That [Spieth’s par at No. 1] had to give him an emotional lift,” said two-time champion Ben Crenshaw, Spieth’s Masters mentor who walked with the defending champion early Thursday.
It was two years ago when Crenshaw first saw the potential in Spieth. He had all the markings of not just a good PGA Tour player, but a major champion. A Masters champion.
Crenshaw first led his fellow Texan around Augusta National during a practice round two years ago. It was a Wednesday and in true hump-day fashion it was an intense study into the nuances of a course that never seems to give up all of its secrets.
“All the way around he would ask, ‘What are you doing on this shot here?’” Crenshaw recalled. “You just create situations and he liked that. He wanted to know the breaks and what I saw. I told him to keep matching your speed [on the greens], pace, pace, pace.”
He may have bolted the University of Texas early, but Spieth is nothing if not an impressive student.
In just his third Masters start, Spieth negotiated the swirling wind and rocking pine trees like, well, Crenshaw.
After setting the tone at the first, he birdied the third hole from 6 feet, the sixth from 12 feet, the eighth from 4 feet, the 10th from 10 feet and the 18th from 4 feet.
“I got a lot out of the round with what I felt like was kind of average‑ish ball‑striking,” Spieth said. “I just scored the ball extremely well, which is something I've been struggling with this season. ... Certainly made a lot of putts today. But I am extremely pleased with that round today. I felt like we stole a few.”
It was the grinding pars, however, that will likely give Spieth confidence heading into a cold weekend. Encounters like at the fourth hole on Day 1, where he missed the green well right with his 6-iron tee shot but played a brilliant chip under the trees for a stress-free par on a day that was outright stressful for the vast majority of the rest of the field.
“I gave a fist pump right there [at No. 4], because that was a really hard up‑and‑down, coming from that side of the green,” said Spieth, who beat the early field average by 8.9 strokes. “That was huge, it keeps momentum there and it allows me to be able to adjust kind of my swing on the next iron shots that I hit without losing strokes on my misses and that's very, very key.”
In his nine competitive rounds at Augusta National, Spieth’s position after each day reads like the number on an ATM card – T-12, T-3, T-1, T-2, 1st, 1st, 1st, 1st and 1st.
Following his runner-up showing in 2014 and last year’s record-tying victory it would be easy to lapse into a misguided hot take replete with histrionics, but there is no denying Spieth’s current run in north Georgia.
Four solid rounds is a good week, nine rounds is starting to feel like a bona fide trend.
“I was impressed by everything he did today,” said Paul Casey, who was grouped with Spieth on Day 1. “That was a flawless round of golf on one of the toughest days I’ve ever seen at Augusta National.”
The cliché that the Masters doesn’t begin until the back nine on Sunday has never been more irrelevant, not with a forecast that is on the Open Championship side of awful.
If the weather continues down its current ominous path, Spieth’s front nine on Thursday may prove to be the difference between a series of legendary performances and what is starting to look like a true legend.