Augusta, Ga. – There are no Minnesotans playing in the Masters this year, but the first-round leaderboard featured a slew of players our state may want to claim, the way you might try to reunite with a long-lost cousin who just won the lottery.
Jordan Spieth? He starred at Hazeltine National during the American Ryder Cup victory in 2016 and surged into the lead Thursday with five straight birdies on the back nine to post a 66.
Tony Finau? He became an honorary hockey player by shooting a 68 the day after dislocating his ankle and popping it back into place himself.
Matt Kuchar, Patrick Reed, Rory McIlroy, Zach Johnson, Phil Mickelson, Rickie Fowler, Rafael Cabrera Bello and Henrik Stenson? Like Spieth, they all competed at Hazeltine and finished the day at 2 under or better. And Johnson, as an Iowegian, is the closest thing to a Minnesotan with a chance to win this week.
On a sunny, still day, a large crowd massed around the first tee to see Tiger Woods hit his first competitive shot at Augusta National since 2015. A security detail begged fans to step back as they crowded the tee box, then Woods yanked a 3-wood into the trees on the left side of the fairway. The biggest story in golf quickly became an afterthought, shooting a 73.
“It felt great to be back out there again,” Woods said. “I only came up here the last couple of years just to have food.”
Spieth dines on greens, especially Augusta National’s. He has played 17 rounds at the Masters. He has finished nine of the past 15 in the lead. He has ranked lower than 12th once. He enters Friday with a two-shot lead, three years after becoming the fifth wire-to-wire winner in event history.
“Once you win here, you have an advantage over anyone who hasn’t won here,” Spieth said, summoning the kind of psychological gamesmanship that belies his aw-shucks demeanor.
As deep and impressive as the leaderboard is, none of the players who shot 69 or better has won a green jacket. Other than Spieth, who is trying to win a second before he turns 25.
“I felt Sunday-type pressure in the middle of the back nine,” he said.
Imagine what it’s like to chase him, especially on a bad ankle.
Finau made a hole-in-one in front of his son in the par-3 tournament on Wednesday, sprinted toward the hole and turned his left ankle into an illustration of a dogleg.
Finau had the ankle tested, arrived early at the course on Thursday and decided he could play. In his first round at the Masters, he walked with a barely noticeable limp, seemed to cut off his follow-through to keep his left foot flat and finished two shots behind Spieth, tied for second with Kuchar.
“Nothing short of a miracle,” Finau said. “I could barely put any pressure on it. I could barely walk. But, obviously, after the MRI we had, there was no real damage. So at that point, at about 8 this morning, I knew I was going to play.”
Kuchar played the last six holes in 4 under par, and McIlroy was one of seven players to shoot a 69 in his effort to become the sixth golfer to complete the career grand slam. “If I continue to play like that over the next three days, I’ll be pretty close,” McIlroy said.
That’s presuming Spieth doesn’t do what he did in 2015, and run away from the field by hitting greens, sinking putts and practicing the course management of a player twice his age.
“This golf course specifically brings out a lot of feel in my game, and I think that’s advantageous,” he said. “I don’t do well in domes or on driving-range shots, and you don’t have many of those out here.”
With sloping fairways and speedy greens, Augusta National demands touch, and Spieth is already imagining the texture of the hem of his next green jacket.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at MNSPN.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib firstname.lastname@example.org