Golf's Big Three begin Masters with ceremonial tee shots
AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) 7:37 p.m.
Jordan Spieth was already one of the hottest players on the PGA Tour.
He showed no signs of letting up at the Masters.
There are still three rounds to go, but the 21-year-old Spieth looks very much like the one to beat after opening with an 8-under 64 and making a serious run at the major championship scoring record Thursday.
If not for a blunder at the par-5 15th, where Spieth's tee shot left him perfectly positioned for no worse than a birdie but he wound up making bogey, he very well could have been the first player to shoot 62 at one of golf's biggest events.
As it was, Spieth came up just short of the record, which is 63, but can't complain about a three-shot lead heading to Friday.
Ernie Els, Justin Rose, Jason Day and Charley Hoffman all shot 67. Sergio Garcia and Russell Henley were another stroke back with 68s.
''To make nine birdies out there, that's a dreamy round for me,'' Spieth said. ''It was a lot of fun.''
None of this should be a surprise. Not the way he was playing leading up to Augusta, having won, finished second, and lost in a playoff in his three previous tournaments. Not the way he played a year ago in his Masters debut, leading on Sunday before fading down the stretch to finish in a tie for second behind Bubba Watson.
Maybe it was the experience last time that kept from getting too worked up about his brilliant start. There's an endless list of players who led a major after the opening round and were long gone by Sunday.
But it would be a huge surprise if Spieth fades away.
''I was leading last year at one point by a couple of shots on Sunday,'' he recalled. ''It didn't go my way. I know how many things can happen in a major championship. I'll try to learn from last year and stay patient these next three rounds.''
Spieth had just completed his round when Day finished off a run of five straight birdies at the 16th hole, pushing his score to 6 under. The Aussie bogeyed the 17th and settled for par at the tough closing hole, but had no complaints about the disappointing finish.
Tiger Woods has clearly improved during his time away from the PGA Tour.
He's still got a lot of work to do before he's ready to compete for his 15th major championship.
While plenty of players went low, Woods struggled to a 1-over 73 Thursday in the opening round of the Masters, failing to take advantage of the prime scoring conditions. There were plenty of promising shots - particularly in his short game - but a wild drive at No. 9 wound up in the adjacent first fairway, and he struck a pine tree with his second shot, leading to a bogey.
''Two dumb mistakes,'' Woods said.
He also dumped one in Rae's Creek on the picturesque 12th hole, leading to another bogey. And there were flashes of that notorious Tiger temper, whether it was swinging the club in anger or cursing himself for all to hear.
But Woods insisted the ''only thing I really struggled with was the pace of the greens. I couldn't believe they were as slow as they were.''
His short game has definitely improved since he walked off the course at Torrey Pines in early February, in such disarray that he found it difficult to pull off routine chips.
''That's the strength of my game. That's the way it should be,'' Woods said. ''That's why I hit thousands and thousands of shots, so it's my strength again.''
Jordan Spieth kept up his hot play on the PGA Tour with a brilliant opening round at the Masters, shooting an 8-under 64 Thursday for a two-shot lead.
Spieth birdied eight of the first 14 holes, his shots so precise that he often had nothing more than tap-ins with the putter. He rolled in a 6-footer at the 12th, a 2-footer at the 13th, then nearly holed out from behind a tree along the 14th fairway, the ball striking the flagstick before settling about 2 feet away for another easy birdie.
The 21-year-old Texan went to the par-5 15th with a shot at the major championship scoring record, which is 63. His tee shot was perfect - right in the middle of the fairway, well within reach of the green with the second shot.
But, perhaps overcome by adrenaline, Spieth powered his approach past the green, came up short coming back with his chip, and a tentative putt form the fringe led to his only bogey.
He closed with three straight pars, giving him the top spot on the leaderboard heading to Friday's second round.
Jason Day made five straight birdies to get to 6 under with two holes to play. Charley Hoffman, Justin Rose and Ernie Els had 67s.
The adrenaline might have gotten to Jordan Spieth, who had a shot to break the major championship scoring record Thursday when he birdied eight of the first 14 holes at the Masters.
He was in good position for another birdie, maybe even an eagle, when he drove into the middle of the fairway at the par-5 15th hole.
But Spieth's approach shot flew the green, nearly rolling into the pond on the 16th hole. Forced to play it safe with more water in front of the 15th green, his chip came up short, and a tentative putt from the fringe led to his first bogey of the day.
That dropped his score to 7 under, still good enough for a two-stroke lead but needing at least two birdies on the final three holes to tie the scoring record, which is 63.
Jordan Spieth is probably the hottest player on the PGA Tour.
The 21-year-old Texan carried that form right to the Masters.
Spieth claimed the outright lead Thursday with eight birdies on the first 14 holes. His shots were so precise, he had taken only 18 putts to that point. He nearly holed out from behind a tree at No. 14, the ball bouncing off the flagstick to set up nothing more than a tap-in for his third straight birdie.
In fact, the combined length of his birdie putts at Nos. 13 and 14 was about a yard.
Spieth was in position to possibly break the Masters scoring record, which is a 9-under 63.
This is not the least bit surprising.
Even though much of the pre-Masters focus was on Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods, Spieth was a popular pick based on his recent play. In his last three events, he has a win, a runner-up finish, and lost in a playoff.
Spieth also showed last year in his Masters debut that he's got the game to do well at Augusta National. He had the lead on the final day, but faded down the stretch as Bubba Watson took the green jacket.
Just when you think Ernie Els is all done, he surges into contention at a major championship.
After missing the cut in four straight events this year, the Big Easy wasn't expected to be part of the mix at Augusta National.
Yet there he was Thursday, atop the Masters leaderboard at 6 under as the 45-year-old South African headed to the next-to-last hole.
Els claimed the outright lead with an eagle at the par-5 15th. A short time later, Jordan Spieth also got to 6 under with a birdie at the 12th.
Spieth has been one of the hottest players on the PGA Tour.
Els, on the other hand, hasn't finished higher than a tie for 13th at Bay Hill.
Tiger Woods sure hasn't lost his competitive fire.
In the opening round of the Masters, Woods flashed that notorious temper on a couple of errant shots at the ninth hole Thursday.
First, after yanking his tee shot into the adjacent first fairway, Woods let the club fall from his hands in disgust while he stood frozen, staring incredulously at the flight of his ball. Then, with at least a view of the green even though he was on the wrong hole, he pushed his next shot into one of those towering pine trees, prompting Woods to swing the club angrily with one hand.
Gathering himself, Woods pulled off a skillful shot from the pine straw, hooking the ball to the back of the green.
He managed to salvage a bogey that could've been a lot worse, sending him to the back side with a 1-over 37.
If Rory McIlroy was feeling any extra pressure at the Masters, he sure didn't show it Thursday.
Taking advantage of prime scoring conditions, McIlroy birdied both par 5s on the back side and finished with a 1-under 71 that left him solidly in contention for a career Grand Slam.
Sure, there were a few shaky shots along the way. An errant drive into a creek at the par-5 second hole, forcing him to scramble for par. A sloppy chip at the 11th, which led to the second of his two bogeys.
All in all, though, no complaints. He went to the clubhouse four shots behind co-leaders Charley Hoffman and Justin Rose.
''It's nice to just get on with the tournament, nice to get that first hole out of the way. Now I can just relax and try to find my rhythm,'' McIlroy said. ''I'm pretty satisfied with the first day.''
After winning the last two majors of 2014, McIlroy arrived at Augusta looking to become only the sixth golfer in the modern era to capture all four of golf's biggest events.
He's only 25.
Bubba Watson got off to a solid start Thursday in his bid to repeat as Masters champion, even though he admittedly got tired at the end of his round.
Watson needed a chip-in at the 17th to save par, and he made bogey on the final hole. Still, he signed for a 1-under 71 and was just four strokes off the lead among those in the clubhouse.
Watson has captured the green jacket two of the last three years. If he wins again, he'll join Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods as the only repeat champions at Augusta National.
With the temperature climbing near 90 degrees and the round taking more than five hours to play, Watson struggled to concentrate coming down the stretch, leading to a pair of errant drives.
''I was just tired,'' he said. ''I was not committed, not focused. Other than that, it was a good day.''
Watson managed to break par even though he three-putted twice.
''If you take those two three-putts away, two shots better, I'd be in the 60s,'' Watson said. ''Not too bad. I didn't play my way out of it and I'm not too far behind, so I'm happy with it.''
It was a tough day for an old champion.
In his 44th and final Masters, Ben Crenshaw struggled Thursday to a 19-over 91 - by far the worst round of his Augusta career.
With no chance of making the cut on Friday, the 63-year-old Crenshaw will at least be able to savor the cheers as he makes one final trip around a course where he captured a pair of green jackets.
Crenshaw played without his regular Augusta caddie, Carl Jackson, who had a sore rib and was unable to carry the bag. He was replaced by his younger brother, Bud Jackson, who has been a caddie at the club for 49 years.
Another senior golfer showed he's still got some game.
Sixty-five-year-old Tom Watson shot a 71, his best Masters round since 2002. He's got a shot to make the cut for only the second time in the last 13 years.
''Perfect conditions. No wind. Greens are very soft,'' Watson said. ''It was there for the taking.''
Make room atop the Master leaderboard, Charley Hoffman.
Justin Rose matched Hoffman by shooting a 5-under 67 Thursday, leaving them tied for the lead on a sweltering afternoon at Augusta National.
With the temperature climbing toward 90 degrees, Rose made three birdies on the front side, shook off a bogey at the tough 11th hole, and birdied both par 5s on the back nine.
The 2013 U.S. Open champion matched his lowest round ever at the Masters, a tournament where the Englishman's best finish in nine previous appearances was a tie for fifth.
Russell Henley was one stroke back with a 68.
After a birdie at No. 3, Rose dumped his tee shot on the par-3 fourth into a bunker. He got up-and-down from there, a nifty par that seemed to spark his round.
''That really settled everything down,'' said Rose, who birdied the next two holes. ''I played good golf from there.''
Tiger Woods is at even par at the Masters.
That's actually a big improvement over the last time he attempted to play tournament golf.
Woods walked off the course at Torrey Pines on Feb. 5, his game a total mess. He said he wouldn't compete again until he saw signs of improvement during his practice sessions, which led him to announce late last week that he would play at Augusta National.
Some questioned if Woods was merely deceiving himself, but it was clear during practice rounds this week that he was at least striking the ball a lot better than before, even though there are still plenty of doubts that he's ready to win his 15th major title.
Woods went with a 3-wood off the first tee and drove his ball right of a bunker along the right side of the fairway. He wound up making a bogey.
But Woods bounced back with a birdie at the par-5 second hole, followed by a par on No. 3.
Considering where he was before, that's progress.
Chasing a career Grand Slam, Rory McIlroy was off to a sluggish start at the Masters.
At the 11th hole Thursday, a sloppy chip from just off the green led to his second bogey, prompting McIlroy to swipe his club angrily. He had only one birdie, leaving him 1 over for the round as he headed through Amen Corner.
Meanwhile, the lefties are climbing the leaderboard.
Defending champion Bubba Watson was at 2 under. So was three-time Masters winner Phil Mickelson.
The leader in the clubhouse remained Charley Hoffman with a 5-under 67, though there was company at the top. Justin Rose birdied both par 5s on the back side to push his score to 5 under with three holes to play in the opening round.
What's all that barking at Augusta National? Those would actually be cheers for Russell Henley, who turned in a 4-under 68 Thursday and was one shot behind early clubhouse leader Charley Hoffman.
The 25-year-old Henley is a native of Macon, Georgia, about a two-hour drive from Augusta. He played his college golf at the University of Georgia, where fans of the Bulldogs are known for barking and shouting ''How `Bout Them Dawgs!''
Henley gave them plenty to cheer about with a round that included five birdies and only one slip-up, a bogey at the 11th.
This is the third Masters appearance for Henley, who missed the cut two years ago and finished tied for 31st in 2014. This was the first time he's broken 70 at Augusta National.
The Bulldogs are well represented in the first major of the year, with Henley joined by five other alums, including defending champion Bubba Watson. No other school had more than three players in the field.
Henley said he wasn't quite as nervous as the last two years.
''I just had a ball today. It's fun to shoot under par at Augusta,'' he said.
Charley Hoffman had quite a day at the Masters.
Not only did he shoot a 5-under 67 to grab the early lead Thursday, he managed to snag a couple of valuable autographs.
While Hoffman was warming up to play in the first group of the tournament, he spotted Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer hitting balls on the range. Those two, of course, strike the ceremonial opening tee shots along with Gary Player.
''That was pretty cool,'' Hoffman said. ''I was sort of scared of them. `Should I ask them? Should I not ask them?'''
He mustered up the courage and got them to sign a couple of flags, which Hoffman plans to auction off to benefit some of his favorite charities.
''My mind was not on golf early on,'' he said. ''I was thinking of those guys.''
Maybe that helped Hoffman relax. Then he birdied the second and third holes, which calmed his nerves even more.
''I was ready to go,'' Hoffman said.
Welcome back, Charley Hoffman.
Playing the Masters for the first time since his debut in 2011, Hoffman shot a 5-under 67 to become the leader in the clubhouse. He was in the first group of the day with Brian Harman and got off to a good start, making birdies on the three of the first five holes.
Hoffman closed even better with an eagle at the par-5 15th, a birdie at No. 16 and a 5-foot birdie putt at the 18th for his lowest round ever in a major.
At the moment, he's two shots clear of the field. Justin Rose and Bill Haas are both 3 under.
When he played the Masters four years ago, Hoffman finished tied for 27th.
Rory McIlroy got off to a bit of a shaky start Thursday at the Masters, knocking his ball into a creek that runs well off the left side of the par-5 second hole.
After taking a drop on the pine straw, McIlroy lined his next shot between a couple of trees, back into fairway. A nifty wedge left him with a short putt to save par, about as good a result as he could hope for after that errant shot.
Charley Hoffman, playing in the first group of the day, made an eagle at the 15th and a birdie on the 16th to claim the early lead at 4 under.
Rory McIlroy has teed off in the Masters with history in his grasp.
The 25-year-old from Northern Ireland is three-quarters of the way to a career Grand Slam, with only the Masters missing from his resume.
If McIlroy can win at Augusta National, he'll follow Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Gary Player, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen as the only players to win all of golf's biggest events in the modern era.
McIlroy is the clear favorite after closing 2014 with victories at the British Open and the PGA Championship. At the Masters, he is best remembered for his closing-round collapse in 2011, when he squandered a four-shot lead by shooting 80.
''A place in history is what's at stake,'' said McIlroy, who was playing Thursday with three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson and Ryan Moore. ''The sooner I get it out of the way, the better.''
Ben Crenshaw is playing his 44th and final Masters without his usual caddie on the bag.
Carl Jackson had hoped to go out with Crenshaw one more time, but sore ribs forced the 67-year-old looper to turn the duties over to his brother Bud, one of Augusta National's full-time club caddies.
''I'm injured,'' said Carl Jackson, who came out to watch Crenshaw on the putting green Thursday.
Jackson, who used to work at Augusta National, was on the bag for Crenshaw's Masters victories in 1984 and 1995. The golfer continued to use him even after the club dropped its requirement that all players must use one of the club's caddies in the tournament.
With Jackson out, his younger brother was the natural replacement. The 58-year-old has worked at Augusta National for 49 seasons and is one of the club's top caddies, though this is only the second time he's taken part in the Masters.
Asked if he was nervous, Bud Jackson said, ''Noooo! I do this every day.''
The Jackson family is an institution at Augusta National. Two other brothers also caddied in the Masters: Bill Jackson was on the bag when Ed Sneed lost to Fuzzy Zoeller in a playoff, while Austin Jackson once worked with Arnold Palmer.
Too bad cameras aren't allowed at Augusta National. Charley Hoffman's family and friends would love to snap a quick picture of the Masters leaderboard.
Hoffman is the very early leader on a warm, sunny Thursday morning, making birdies at the second and third holes to push his score to 2 under. He's playing the first group with Brian Harman, who parred the first three holes.
Of course, it's a little early to start measuring Hoffman for a green jacket.
Undoubtedly, some players haven't even woken up yet.
Three of golf's greatest players delivered ceremonial tee shots to open the Masters on Thursday.
Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Arnold Palmer thrilled the patrons who crowded around the first tee shortly after sunrise. They even drew some of the players who'll be competing for real, including defending champion Bubba Watson, Rickie Fowler and Keegan Bradley.
''Don't fan it,'' Palmer jokingly told himself before hitting his shot.
''I don't think he's kidding,'' Nicklaus added. ''He said exactly the same thing to me.''
Player said he appreciated the players who came out to watch him hit.
''It shows they have respect for the game,'' he said.
Not long after the Big Three left the tee, the tournament began for real. Charley Hoffman and Brian Harman were the first group to hit the course.
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963