Jordan Spieth upstages Tiger Woods in Masters return

Dan Wetzel
Columnist

AUGUSTA, Ga. — They stood four-deep, up on their toes and craning their necks to get a glimpse … all the way from a clubhouse veranda that might be 50 yards from the tee box. Generally, no one stands up there to watch the Masters. Down where fans usually hang out, it was 15, 20, 25 deep, thousands and thousands of people, pretty much as many as could fit around the first tee of Augusta National.

“Fore, please” called the starter at 10:42 a.m. ET. “Tiger Woods now driving.”

With that, the crowd roared like it was Sunday afternoon and Woods had just won the dang thing. Thursday morning was the first round of the Masters, but it felt more like a revival – Tiger back from injury, Tiger back from the brink.

No one knew if this would ever be possible again, Woods playing competitively, let alone arriving at a major he’s won four times with a legitimate claim to being a contender. He wound up finishing 1-over par, not great, but enough that when he finished about 4 p.m. local time, he stated he was “in this championship.”

“A 73 is fine,” Tiger said. “By the end of the week this will be a pretty packed leaderboard the way the golf course is set up. By the end of the week there will be a bunch of guys with a chance to win this tournament.”

Well, maybe.

Thursday was a bit like two separate sporting events taking place at the same time … the return of Tiger Woods and the 82nd Masters Tournament.

Tiger did his part to thrill the masses just by being here. Then Jordan Spieth turned the actual event on its ear by posting a 6-under 66. In doing so, he reminded everyone that Augusta National is his personal golfing playground. That’s a description that used to apply to Tiger Woods, of course, who does own four green jackets after all.

Tiger Woods of the U.S. walks onto the 7th green during first round play of the 2018 Masters golf tournament at the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia. (REUTERS)

Spieth, 24, is a different beast, though. He has played just 17 rounds at this tournament. He’s led after nine of them, including winning the 2015 event.

Woods, 42, has played 75 rounds here. He also has led after nine rounds at the Masters. That’s it. Nine. None of them have occurred since he won the event in 2005.

The stat doesn’t seem possible but it’s true. Perhaps it suggests Tiger’s confidence is well-placed – he knows how to come back and make a Saturday or Sunday charge to victory. Besides, Spieth has indeed led a lot here, but he has just one victory (and two runner-ups). He’s collapsed before.

“I’ll always have demons out here,” Spieth said. “But I’ll also always have confidence. … I’m not getting ahead of myself. It was just a really good start.”

Spieth was so good Thursday his 6-under included a give-back bogey on 18 due to an errant drive. His short game was sublime. He had an eagle and seven birdies, including five consecutive holes at one point. He called two of his three bogeys among his “highlights” because they required terrific shots. He holds a two-stroke lead already.

Tiger, meanwhile, is tied for 30th.

The fact is, when Tiger was dominating Augusta, he never faced anything like Jordan Spieth here, a guy capable of running away with it, wire-to-wire. And even though Spieth was quick to note he probably wouldn’t always be atop the leaderboard, it’s clear he knows exactly what he is capable of here.

“We build plans for the year to peak at certain times, not just here at Augusta but the major championships,” Spieth said. “The right amount of confidence and composure. This golf course brings about a lot of feel for my game. And that is advantageous.”

Jordan Spieth looks over his birdie putt on the 17th green during the first round at the Masters golf tournament Thursday. (AP)

Spieth’s potential brilliance, or Spieth at all, wasn’t on anyone’s mind when Woods stepped to that first tee. Nor should it have been. The fans wanted this. They dreamed of getting another chance to bear witness to this. They’d seen what a Masters without Tiger is like and pretty much all of them agree – no offense to Jordan and the rest – that it’s not quite as electric, not quite as fun.

As such, they turned out in numbers that were huge even by standards that usually follow Tiger Woods around the hills of Augusta. They lined fairways and packed temporary stands and surrounded greens two or three holes ahead of Woods so they could get a good view when he finally arrived.

“I got a standing ovation on the range,” Tiger said.

“It’s kind of a different atmosphere, isn’t it?” playing partner Tommy Fleetwood marveled.

Did you feel the anticipation around the first tee shot, Fleetwood was asked?

“Yeah,” Fleetwood said with a laugh, “[but] I was pretty sure they weren’t feeling anticipation about me.”

At one point midday, Woods teed off in front of thousands on the fourth tee. Moments later Vijay Sighn, a three-time major champion, stepped up to drive the ninth hole after leading the tournament most of the morning (he’d finish 1-under).

There were maybe 75 people watching him.

Tiger’s presence was fun, but due to the timing of his morning tee off, it felt like a warm-up act. Come for the nostalgia, stay for the domination in the form of the slight, young Texan who has become the biggest bully here.

Rory McIlroy (3-under) played well. Matt Kuchar (4-under) played well. Patrick Reed (3-under) played well. Tony Finau (4-under) played well, despite his ankle mishap in the Par-3 Contest.

They were all looking up at Spieth again, though. That’s where Spieth wants to be, because he believes not having to chase someone up the board allows him to play more conservative at a place that can bite back, quickly.

“This golf course is a lot easier to play if you think you can hit the center of greens and wait for your opportunities,” Spieth said.

So here we are, the young gun and the return of the legend, each generating cheers and screams across the day, for different reasons.

“I played in a major championship again,” Tiger said, before noting that he wasn’t here as some ceremonial attraction. He plans on contending. “I’m back in this championship. There’s a lot of holes to be played.”

There are.

Jordan Spieth will be playing them, too, though.

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