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Spieth keeps momentum, leads World Challenge

WINDERMERE, Fla. – Jordan Spieth has been around the world and back the past few days – so it’s only natural that the 21-year-old wunderkind grabbed the first-round lead at the Hero World Challenge.

Spieth, just five days removed from a dominating victory at the Emirates Australian Open, carded a 6-under 66 Thursday at Isleworth Golf and Country Club to take a one-shot lead among one of golf’s most impressive fields of the year.

“Six under on this course is a really good round,” said Spieth, who won by six last Sunday in Australia and nearly won the Dunlop Phoenix in Japan the week earlier. “I came here with a lot of confidence, and I played very well today.”

After starting his round on a high note with a birdie at the first, Spieth caught fire at No. 6, rattling home five consecutive birdies. None was more important than the tap-in at the seventh.

“I opened the face for kind of a spinner, and it came out perfectly and took one hop and just checked and almost went in. Hit the lip,” Spieth said of his pitch to the par-5 green from a downhill, sidehill slope. “That was a big birdie to grab.”

He missed several makable putts coming down the stretch but capped his round with a curling 12-footer for par at 18.

“I said, ‘Let’s just put a little smoother stroke on this and let it die in,’” Spieth said.

And it did.

Spieth is jet-lagged from traveling to Japan and Australia but hopes to ride the momentum of his strong play to another victory.

“I hit it the best I’ve hit it since maybe the spring in Japan,” Spieth said. “I didn’t hit it great last week, but I putted out of my mind.”

He credited his swing coach, Cameron McCormick, for making a minor tweak to his path when they practiced on the putting green in Australia ahead of the tournament in Sydney.

“It was something so minor that I wouldn’t have been able to tell,” he said. “But it freed me up and gave me the confidence inside 10 feet to be aggressive. This week I’m just trying to continue that and get my ballstriking where it was last week or even in Japan.”

But the youngster has some big names nipping at his heels entering Friday’s second round.

Defending champion Zach Johnson shot a 5-under 67 to share second with Rickie Fowler, Steve Stricker and Henrik Stenson. Three more players, including Lake Nona’s Graeme McDowell, were a shot further removed after 68s.

“I gave myself a lot of opportunities today,” said Johnson, who won this event last year with a memorable hole-out down the stretch at Sherwood Country Club in California. “I don’t think I missed a green today; maybe I missed one fairway.”

For tournament host Tiger Woods, however, the day wasn’t quite so kind.

The 14-time major champion bogeyed the first hole and never recovered, carding a 77 in his first competitive round since the PGA Championship in August.

“I didn’t feel like I hit it that poorly,” Woods said, “I hit a lot of good shots. But my short game was just awful. It was one of those days where nothing went my way.”

Still, the former World No. 1 remained optimistic after the round and echoed a familiar philosophy that golf fans have come to expect from him over the years.

“I’ve got three more days,” he said. “If I can get under par for the tournament after tomorrow and then put together a really good weekend, you never know.”

– Adam Schupak contributed

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