The fu­ture is now in Spi­eth

The hottest player in the world stays that way in the first round at Au­gusta with a 64 and a three-shot lead.

Los Angeles Times - - GOLF THE MASTERS - By Dan Wiederer dwiederer@tribpub.com Twit­ter: @dan­wiederer

AU­GUSTA, Ga. — Ernie Els re­mem­bers it clearly, a sec­ond-round 67 in his first Masters in 1994, a move into the top five and an in­vig­o­rat­ing com­pli­ment from play­ing part­ner Ben Cren­shaw.

“He was so gra­cious, so nice,” Els re­called Thurs­day. “He said, ‘You know, you’re go­ing to win this tour­na­ment if you keep putting like that.’ ”

Els could only chuckle. Twenty-one years later, at age 45, he’s still wait­ing to snag his first green jacket, still try­ing to solve Au­gusta Na­tional’s many rid­dles.

As fate would have it, he found him­self pay­ing Cren­shaw’s praise for­ward Thurs­day — to a 21-year-old, no less, a cold-blooded com­peti­tor in Jor­dan Spi­eth who put up an im­pos­ing road­block to Els’ lat­est pur­suit of a Masters ti­tle.

Els’ five-un­der-par 67 could have been the story of the open­ing round. Only Spi­eth took a blow­torch to the Au­gusta grounds with an eight-un­der 64 for a three-shot lead.

And Spi­eth could have tied the ma­jor cham­pi­onship record of 63 if not for a bo­gey on the par-five 15th.

“You just can­not see this kid not win­ning many, many ma­jors,” Els said. “He is by far the most bal­anced kid I’ve seen. . . . He’s got that lit­tle tenac­ity to him. He’s re­ally got a fight­ing spirit.”

It’s easy to un­der­stand why Els feels that way. Spi­eth is the hottest player on the PGA Tour — he has fin­ished first or sec­ond in his last three starts — and he found the zone again Thurs­day, par­tic­u­larly dur­ing a seven-hole stretch on Nos. 8-14 that he played in six un­der.

No shot was more im­pres­sive than his ap­proach to the 14th. Af­ter push­ing his drive into the rough and leav­ing him­self an awk­ward look — 182 yards to the pin, ball above his feet, par­tially ob­structed by low-hang­ing pine branches — Spi­eth ripped a seven-iron and cut it per­fectly. He hit it so pure, it bounced off the flag stick and al­most fell for ea­gle.

“I just wanted to carry the ridge [in front of the green],” Spi­eth said. “And when it did, I kind of looked down and just heard the crazy roar and the sigh at the end of the roar. So I fig­ured it had hit the pin and ended up pretty good.”

That was Spi­eth’s day in a nut­shell. Good shots. For­tu­nate breaks. Low scores.

But when the word “des­tiny” came up in his post-round news con­fer­ence, Spi­eth swat­ted it away as pre­ma­ture. “It’s Round 1,” he as­serted. And 29 play­ers joined Spi­eth un­der par, in­clud­ing de­fend­ing cham­pion Bubba Wat­son and ca­reer Grand Slam stalker Rory McIl­roy, both at 71.

Ja­son Day, Justin Rose and Charley Hoffman joined Els at 67. Rus­sell Hen­ley and Ser­gio Garcia were tied for sixth at 68.

Els’ surge was as un­ex­pected as it was im­pres­sive. He had never shot an open­ing round in the 60s at Au­gusta Na­tional, had missed the cut in four of his pre­vi­ous seven ap­pear­ances and hadn’t fin­ished a day in the top 20 since 2006.

On top of all that, his game has been a mess this sea­son with four missed cuts and, most re­cently, a tie for 57th at the Hous­ton Open. And yet... “I felt at ease for some rea­son,” the four-time ma­jor cham­pion said. “I felt pa­tient.”

That’s a learned qual­ity here, par­tic­u­larly with a record that in­cludes six top-10 fin­ishes and five missed cuts.

Still, smart money fa­vors Spi­eth as the more likely player to keep the mo­men­tum rolling. Last year’s run­ner-up fin­ish in his Masters de­but at age 20 pro­vided con­fi­dence. Thurs­day’s round won’t hurt.

Asked how it felt to hang a 64 on Au­gusta, Spi­eth grinned.

“Re­ally cool,” he said. “I’d take three more.”

That’s ask­ing a bit much. But ev­ery­one at Au­gusta, Spi­eth in­cluded, knows he has the game and the com­po­sure to stay locked in.

Matt Slocum As­so­ci­ated Press

JOR­DAN SPI­ETH TEES OFF on the 15th hole, where he made his only bo­gey of the day af­ter mak­ing six birdies in seven holes.

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