AUGUSTA, Ga. -- As Jordan Spieth prepared to tee off at 9:48 a.m. Thursday, a private jet flew down the first fairway from green to tee, then swung a graceful right and disappeared.
You couldn't help but wonder if Arnold Palmer was sneaking one more peek at Augusta National on his way home after watching from a chair on the first tee as Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player hit the ceremonial opening drives at the 80th Masters.
In fact, Palmer left after a business lunch, but what Arnold would have seen had stayed was a round from Spieth right out of the Palmer playbook. He was all over the place on his way to a six-under-par 66.
“Arnold in his prime really wasn’t a very good driver,” Nicklaus said Thursday. “He was long, but he hit it in the trees and I think that’s where his popularity came from, the recovery shots and the excitement because he played golf like everybody else played. But he was an unbelievable putter.”
So, too, is Jordan.
On Thursday, the defending champion was ragged until he got inside 100 yards, perhaps due to playing a new driver after his old one cracked on the practice range Wednesday. Yet the closer Spieth got to the hole, the more magnificent his play as he claimed the lead at the end of day at the Masters for the sixth time in nine rounds.
“I got a lot out of what I thought was an averagish round,” Spieth said after posting a score of par or lower for the ninth straight round at Augusta National—which is all the competitive rounds he has played here.
“I’d put it up there with one of the great rounds I’ve scored,” Spieth said, distinguishing between playing great and scoring great.
Spieth hit two shaky shots to open his defense of his green jacket, missing the green right on the difficult first hole, before pitched his third shot from 28 yards to two feet to save par.
“I hope people pay attention to that chip,” two-time Masters champion and fellow Texas Longhorn Ben Crenshaw said as he walked with Spieth’s group. “That was special and a great way to start a round. Confidence.”
Gentle Ben was correct. This is part of what Spieth does so well: He has the ability to score even when he doesn’t have his A game.
“He’s got a knack for playing golf,” Crenshaw says. “He’s very visual. He sees a shot and plays it. He plays a course intelligently and creatively.”
Spieth needed to be creative, making six impressive par saves.
Beside that up-and-down on No. 1 he made an up-and-down from 49 yards on No. 4; a six-footer on No. 10; a five-footer on No. 11; an up-and-down from 19 yards on No. 14; and again from 24 yards on No. 16, making a 15-footer.
“No. 1 was really nice, especially not even really having to think much about the putt,” Spieth said. “It was a great pitch.”
Sam for the one three holes later.
“The up‑and‑down on 4, I gave a fist pump right there, because that was a really hard up‑and‑down, coming from that side of the green,” Spieth said. “That was huge, and it keeps momentum and it allows me to be able to adjust my swing on the next iron shots that I hit without losing strokes on my misses and that's very, very key.”
His birdies came from six feet on No. 3; 13 feet on No. 6; four feet on No. 8; four feet on No. 10; a two-putt from 12 feet on No. 13 and six feet on the final hole.
“He exudes whatever that is you’d expect from a World No. 1, a major champion,” said Paul Casey, who shot a 69 playing in the same threesome as Spieth. “It’s the confidence, the way he walks, the way he stands, the way he talks.”
And the way he plays.
On No. 11, Spieth laced a 4-iron second shot through a narrow opening in the trees to the fringe of the green and made par. “That was one of the great shots I’ve hit in competition,” Spieth said.
Then, as he walked to the 12th tee, the 22-year-old Texas received a loud, long, standing ovation.
“One of the coolest moments I’ve ever had here, to kind of make you feel you belong as the Masters champion,” he said.
Well, he is the Masters champion, and if Thursday was any indication it’s not a title he is willing to give up easily. He is, as Crenshaw and Casey agree, something special.