The man who was barely mentioned in the build up to the much-anticipated 82nd Masters is clear of the field after the opening day.
Thanks to a six-under-par 66 that was illuminated by a burst of five birdies in a row on the back nine, it’s the ninth time in just 17 rounds at Augusta National that Jordan Spieth has sat at the top of the leaderboard.
He’s been in the final two pairings in all four of his previous four appearances, a win in 2015 sandwiched by two second-place finishes.
Joint-11th 12 months ago wasn’t a shabby effort either and there’s no denying that the Texan’s juices start flowing every time he comes up Magnolia Lane.
This opening effort earned Open champion Spieth a two-shot lead over two of his compatriots, Matt Kuchar and Tony Finau.
That Finau fared so well was remarkable after dislocating an ankle celebrating a hole-in-one in Wednesday’s Par-3 Contest before popping it back in himself.
Chasing a win to complete golf’s career Grand Slam, Rory McIlroy also got off to an encouraging start with a three-under-par 69 - his best start here since 2011.
That score was matched by 2016 Open champion Henrik Stenson, as well as Scottish Open champion Rafa Cabrera Bello, China’s Haotong Li, Americans Charley Hoffman and Patrick Reed and Canadian Adam Hadwin.
The day, however, belonged to Spieth and, in this mood at this particular venue, the 24-year-old could prove hard to catch in the season’s opening major.
“Today was a really good, solid round,” admitted Spieth. “But I know that anything can happen around here (he let a second victory slip from his grasp in 2016) so I am not going to get ahead of myself.”
After that birdie blitz, he led by three playing the last before pulling his tee shot into the trees and having to play out sideways. In the end, he did well to make a bogey.
Spieth said his day had been transformed by three “phenomenal up and downs” to start the back nine then a change of glove.
“My hands had been slipping so I switched gloves and started pin-seeking after that while I also left myself with a lot of good distances,” he added.
One of those was at the 15th, where he set up a birdie with a brilliant wedge from 88 yards. From a similar spot earlier in the day, defending champion Sergio Garcia put five balls in the water to run up a 13.
This is Finau’s debut in the event. It was almost over before it had even started after that horrible moment when he went over on his ankle.
He went for an MRI at a local hospital on Wednesday night and heaved a huge sigh of relief when that showed nothing had been broken.
“No way on earth after what I went through yesterday,” said the 28-year-old of sitting in such a lofty position on the leaderboard.
“I got very excited and the adrenaline took over. I was quite embarrassed. The last thing I wanted was getting carried out of there on a stretcher - that was not happening.
“The pain was quite excruciating, but I wanted to know if I could play today. I had dreamt of this moment and I didn’t want the chance to slip away.
“I was excited to hear nothing was broken after I had the MRI. I knew then I was going to play.”
Kuchar, who has finished in the top 10 four times in this event, made his score with five birdies on the back nine after being one-over early on.
The 39-year-old was on course to claim the Claret Jug last summer until Spieth, his playing partner in the final round, finished with a flourish to claim a third major title.
“He broke my heart at Birkdale, but I tip my hat to him,” said Kuchar of seeing Spieth back on top of the leaderboard here.
McIlroy signed for four birdies but was equally pleased to have made gritty pars at the closing three holes.
“Everything worked well today,” said the 28-year-old afterwards. “I drove the ball well. I felt I controlled my distances with irons well and, when I was out of position, I made a couple of clutch for pars,
“I was in tricky positions at 16, 17 and 18 but holed putts to give myself momentum for tomorrow so I am really pleased with that.”
Stenson hasn’t managed a top-10 finish in 12 previous appearances here. This start, though, on his 42nd birthday will have given the Swede lots of encouragement.
“It was not my best golf, but I managed my way around the course and made a decent number of birdies,” he said.
Tiger Woods will start the second round six shots behind Spieth after he had to settle for a two-over 74. It was a decent day’s work in the end after the wheels were threatening to come off in Amen Corner.
The four-time winner had just made a bogey at the 11th before he dumped his tee shot into Rae’s Creek at the next hole. He did well to limit the damage to a bogey before making birdies at the 14th and 16th.
It was frustrating for Woods that he was unable to birdie any of the par-5s, holes he’s owned here over the years.
“It was interesting,” he said of his day. “A bit up and down and I played the par-5s very sloppily. Even I’d played them half decent, it would have been a solid start. I definitely hit the ball better than the score suggests.”
Garcia would have bitten Woods’ hand for his par at the 15th. The Spaniard equalled the highest score at a single hole in this event with his horror 13. He’d eagled the same hole in the final round last year as he won a first major at the 74th attempt.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” said Garcia afterwards. “It’s the first time in my career where I make a 13 without missing a shot!”
Three-time winner Phil Mickelson opened with a 72, as did 2015 Open champion Zach Johnson and Rickie Fowler, who won the Scottish Open the same year.
Sandy Lyle, the sole Scot in the field in the 30th anniversary of his win here, holed a 40-foot eagle putt at the 15th before finishing bogey-bogey.
“That was disappointing, but the putting is pretty sharp and around the greens it’s pretty sharp, which you have to be around here,” said the 60-year-old.
Chile’s Joaquin Niemann and American Doc Redman fared best among the six amateurs in the field with matching 76s as Amateur champion Harry Ellis had a day to forget after an 86 left him sitting list among the 87 players.