Jordan Spieth the lead story once again at the Masters

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Jordan Spieth the lead story once again at the Masters

PGA Tour

Jordan Spieth the lead story once again at the Masters

AUGUSTA, Ga. – The narrative of Jordan Spieth entering the 82nd Masters Tournament focused more on his recent putting struggles and less on the green jacket already hanging in his Augusta National locker.

On Thursday, though, the 2015 Masters champion flipped the script.

After an opening 6-under 66, the headlines now read outstandingly positive. Spieth has fixed his putting, returned to the top of the white leaderboards at Augusta National and again become the favorite to win a second Masters title.

“I’ll always have demons out here,” said Spieth, who two years ago at the Masters coughed up a five-shot lead on the back nine on Sunday. “But I’ll always have a tremendous amount of confidence out here. Once you win here, you have an advantage over anybody who hasn’t won here.”

No matter that Spieth entered the week ranked 185th on the PGA Tour in strokes gained: putting. Never mind that he had missed two cuts this year and not won since last summer’s British Open.

“I know that it’s close and that I’ve been saying that and not performing on what I’m saying,” Spieth said after missing the cut alongside Tiger Woods at the Valspar Championship in March.

Spieth stuck to his plan of peaking at Augusta, a strategy that seems to be finally working after Spieth got a late start to his 2018 prep because of a bout with mononucleosis in December. Last Sunday in Houston was the most comfortable Spieth has felt on the greens this year, and his T-3 showing there gave him just the spark he needed to light a fire in Augusta.

Through 18 holes this week, Spieth ranks fourth in the field in strokes gained: putting (3.699).

“How comfortable now compared to then (earlier in the year)? Significantly,” Spieth said. “… I had some really tricky putts today from inside of 6 feet, putts that I had to play outside the hole, and made a lot of them in the middle of the hole, which was a big confidence boost. So I’ve kind of found a little trigger in the stroke that has served as beneficial that I tried out last week, and I really think what I did on the weekend last week was hugely beneficial to being able to start strong here.”

Spieth, who has finished second or better three times in four previous Masters starts while also leading after the first round three times, holds a two-shot advantage over Matt Kuchar and Tony Finau. Kuchar is picking up where he left off last year when he aced the 16th hole in the final round en route to a T-4 finish. Finau is competing in his first Masters, though he nearly withdrew after dislocating his left ankle celebrating a hole-in-one of his own in Wednesday’s Par 3 Contest.

“A pretty cool moment followed by probably one of my most embarrassing moments, and a scary moment at the same time,” Finau said.

Finau also birdied all four par-5s. The tournament’s biggest headliner, Woods, birdied none of them and was 3 over through 12 holes – and coming off bogeys on the first two legs of Amen Corner – before birdieing Nos. 12 and 16 to salvage an opening 1-over 73.

“I got myself back in this tournament, and I could have easily let it slip away,” said the four-time Masters champion in his first start at Augusta National since 2015. “And I fought hard to get it back in there, and I’m back in this championship. There’s a lot of holes to be played.”

And a lot of other big names left to take advantage of them. Rory McIlroy, chasing the final piece of the career Grand Slam this week in Augusta, is among a group of seven players at 3 under. Phil Mickelson, with his eyes on breaking Jack Nicklaus’ record for oldest Masters winner (Nicklaus was 46 in 1986; Phil is 47), is 2 under, as is Rickie Fowler, who is still searching for his first major.

The week started with an anticipation unmatched in the lead-up to recent Masters. And after 18 holes, most of the pre-tournament storylines remain. The most glaring exception being Sergio Garcia, who likely ruined his chances of successfully defending his Masters title by putting five balls in the water and making a 13 on the par-5 15th.

“It’s the first time in my career where I make a 13 without missing a shot,” Garcia said.

Spieth can relate to having one’s Masters hopes dashed in a series of splashes. He said not only can he draw on his experiences from when he won here in 2015 but also the heartbreak of 2016.

In the middle of his back nine Thursday, Spieth said he could feel a Sunday-type pressure. And what did he do? He birdied five straight holes, Nos. 13-17. (In all, he made seven birdies, and an eagle on the par-5 eighth hole.)

These next three days could seem like more than 54 holes.

“This tournament often feels like there’s six rounds with how the weekend grind is,” Spieth said. “… I feel like I’m kind of one round down out of six, so I’m not getting ahead of myself.”

He knows how quickly the narrative can change.

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