You knew that this was going to be a special Masters even before Thursday’s opening round.
In Wednesday’s Par 3 contest, 68-year old Tom Watson shot 6-under for the 9 hole contest and became the oldest winner of a tournament most players don’t want to win. No player has ever won the Par 3 and the Masters in the same year. That jinx would continue in 2018 because Watson stopped playing the main event 2 years ago.
Paired with Jack Nicklaus, the two icons turned the clock back 40 years to the Duel in the Sun (Watson would edge Nicklaus in that one too). Watson birdied 5 of his first six holes while the 78-year old Golden Bear roared through towering pines and birdied his first four holes.
The highlight of the day though was when Nicklaus gave the stage to his 15 year old grandson, Gary, on the final hole, who obliged by making a hole in one and reducing the game’s greatest player to tears. Tweeted the six-time winner: “With all due respect to @themasters, allow me to put my 6 Green Jackets in the closet for a moment and say that I don’t know if I have had a more special day on a golf course. To have your grandson make his first hole-in-one on this stage…. WOW!”
Thursday’s opening round was dominated with great play from some of the favorites. Tiger Woods, who was making his first Masters appearance since 2015, struggled on the front 9. After back to back bogies on the 11th and 12th holes he was at 3-over for the Championship before recovering to finish with a 1-over 73, that would leave him seven shots behind the leader, Jordan Spieth.
Spieth’s superb opening salvo included five straight birdies from holes 13-17 and a two shot lead over Tony Finau and Matt Kuchar. Superstars, Rory McIlroy and Henrik Stenson, almost stars, Patrick Reed, Rafa Cabrera Bello, Charley Hoffman and 22-year old Chinese phenom, Hoatong Li were all a further stroke back with 3-under, 69’s.
This was Spieth’s 17th competitive round at Augusta and he has been in the lead of the tournament in a remarkable 7 of those rounds. To put that into perspective, this is Wood’s 79th competitive round (and he has won 4 Green Jackets) and he has led after……7 of those rounds.
Spieth faltered early in Friday’s second round and recorded his highest front-9 score at Augusta, a 4-over par 40 before recovering with a 2-under back 9 to be at 4-under for the halfway mark. That would leave him tied for 4th place with McIlroy who carded a 1-under 71.
A stroke better at 5-under was Stenson whose 2-under 70 gave him sole possession of 3rd place, two shots behind Mark Leishman whose 5-under 67 put him at 7-under. The man everyone was trailing though was Reed whose 9 birdie 66 was the round of the day with a two shot lead at 9-under.
World #’s 1 and 2, Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas clawed their way back into contention on Friday. Johnson shot a 4-under, 68 while Thomas bettered him by one to be tied at 3-under going into the weekend.
They were one ahead of six players at 2-under; Louis Oosthuizen, Justin Rose, Bubba Watson, Rickie Fowler, Hoffman and Finau. Woods struggled with his swing throughout the day but managed to navigate his way to a 3-over 75 and one shot inside the cut line.
Saturday is known as “moving day” on Tour, but at Augusta, that should be translated as “moving hour” given the potential for triumph and disaster at every turn.
Three players moved the most. McIlroy, Fowler and Spain’s Jon Rahm all carded masterful 7-under 65’s to be 11, 9 and 8 under par respectively. But they still trailed an inspired Reed whose 67 was highlighted by eagles-3’s on both the par 5’s on the back 9 that saw him finish at 14-under, and with a 3 shot lead over McIlroy heading into Sunday.
Stenson shot a 2-under 70 to be in 5th place at 7-under, one ahead of England’s Tommy Fleetwood whose 66 put him at 6-under, tied with Leishman and Bubba Watson.
They were one ahead of Spieth and Thomas who remained on the very periphery of contention, but for whom magical things would have to happen on Sunday.
And they almost did. Spieth was 9-under for the day and tied for the lead with Reed as he stood on the 18th tee box. His tee shot clipped a tree and the 24-yeart old Texan made a closing bogey that left him one shot short of tying the course record (Nick Price and Greg Norman) and a shot at his second Green Jacket. It was nonetheless, a round for the ages.
McIlroy was undone by a balky putter and missed several short putts on the front 9 finishing with a 74 and a tie for 5th place with Cameron Smith, Stenson and Watson. Fowler charged the hardest with a 5-under 67 that would ultimately leave him a shot shy of Reed who birdied the 14th hole and then made pars on his final four holes to claim his first Major.
The 27-year old Reed is an enigma in the squeaky clean ranks of professional golfers. He is the author of some outrageous quotes (after winning his second Tour event he said that he considered himself the best player in the world), an unfailing belief in himself and a combative style that doesn’t always sit well. He is fiercely patriotic, as evidenced by his performances in the Ryder and Presidents’ Cups, which has earned him the moniker of “Captain America”.
The Masters is his sixth career victory and while Reed may not be the best player in the game, he most certainly was this week.