Scott Fowler

Spectacular Spieth picks up at Masters where he left off in 2015

Jordan Spieth watches the flight of his second shot along with the gallery crossing the seventh fairway during first round action of The Masters Tournament on Thursday, April 7, 2016 at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, GA.
Jordan Spieth watches the flight of his second shot along with the gallery crossing the seventh fairway during first round action of The Masters Tournament on Thursday, April 7, 2016 at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, GA. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Jordan Spieth was talking about his round Thursday, as golfers like to do, when he noted that it was full of “kind of average-ish ball-striking.”

This was a few minutes after Spieth opened his defense of the Masters championship with a 66. Spieth had six birdies and no bogeys Thursday. The tournament’s 22-year-old defending champion had once again torched what he calls his favorite tournament in the world, taking the first-round lead at Augusta National after winning wire-to-wire a year ago.

Yet it was “average-ish” to him, which just goes to show you how high the bar for Spieth really is and how great he can ultimately be.

It wasn’t that Augusta National played like an easy course Thursday. Rickie Fowler, one of the pre-tournament favorites, opened with an 80. Jason Day, the only player in the world ranked higher than Spieth, had a triple bogey.

And Ernie Els made a quintuple bogey on the very first hole, scoring a 9 on the par-4. Els six-putted that hole – from three feet! – to do that. It was so excruciating to watch that not everyone did. Els was originally credited with a “10” on the hole before the error was corrected several hours later.

Spieth, on the other hand, played like Tiger Woods in his prime.

“It’s a knowing, it’s a confidence,” said Paul Casey, who played in Spieth’s threesome Thursday and described Spieth well afterward. “It’s the way he walks. It’s the way he stands. It goes all the way through from the way he speaks and the way he shakes your hand and the way he deals with people, as well. It’s wonderful.”

Spieth has only played the Masters twice – he tied for second in 2014 at age 20 and then won it last year. He flirted with golf’s grand slam in 2015, also winning the U.S. Open and then coming close in the British Open. Although the Texan has since dropped to No. 2 in the world rankings behind Day, it’s pretty obvious that Spieth is the man everyone has to think about beating first if they are going to win at Augusta.

“I enjoy this tournament more than anywhere else,” Spieth said. “It’s easy for us.”

Spieth sure makes it look that way. Spieth’s 66 wasn’t even his best opening round at the Masters; he started out with a 64 last year. But he said this round might have been even more impressive because his putter – balky for a lot of the early part of this year – saved him so many times.

“Certainly made a lot of putts today,” Spieth said. “If I can kind of straighten things out with the iron play, hopefully we’ll be in business. But yeah, I am extremely pleased with that round today. I felt like we stole a few.”

In the 2015 Masters, Spieth matched Tiger Woods’ course record (set in 1997) with an 18-under-par 270 while winning by four shots

Spieth, who is now 29 strokes below par in the nine official Masters rounds he has played, is clear of everyone else in the field by at least two strokes entering Friday’s second round. But he wasn’t the only player who went low on a windy and sunny Thursday. A group of seven players, including Sergio Garcia, is no more than three strokes back.

But no one combined the firepower and the risk-taking of Spieth Thursday. On the 11th hole, over the objections of his caddie, he chose to play an aggressive shot out of trouble.

“Just trust me on this one,” Spieth told his caddie. Spieth then started chuckling when he hit the ball beautifully, on his way to saving another par.

“I was laughing afterwards, that’s how kind of dumb the decision was,” Spieth said, “and [I] pulled it off.”

Although Spieth has only won once in 2016, he seems utterly in control at Augusta. Casey, his playing partner, called Spieth’s round on Thursday “absolutely flawless.”

Spieth has mentioned this week that he has been studying the golf course, particularly the back nine, since he was eight years old watching it on TV. And while that might be a bit of an exaggeration, Spieth’s passion for the place is obvious.

Couple that with otherworldly talent and you’ve got a guy who is going to be on a lot of leaderboards, including the old-school ones at Augusta, for a long time. Earlier this week, he had to turn in the green jacket he received in 2015 for winning. No one will be surprised if Spieth is pulling that same jacket right back on Sunday night.

Scott Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com, @scott_fowler

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