AUGUSTA, GA. – Jordan Spieth’s opponents aren’t sure whether they’d rather beat him or adopt him.
“He’s just the most magnificent little guy,” said Ernie Els.
“I need to buy a tape recorder that just says, ‘Nice hole, Jordan,’ ” said Billy Horschel.
Horschel would have needed extra batteries Thursday, when the nice kid played enough nice holes to shoot a 64, one off the Masters record, to take a three-shot lead after the first round.
“I joked with him that Amen Corner should be ‘Jordan’s Corner,’ ” Horschel said. “I think the guy even called a bank shot off one of the trees.”
Spieth is the third-youngest player to win multiple tour events, ranking behind Tiger Woods and Sergio Garcia. He’s still 21, matching the number of Masters in which Els has competed.
He’s played 13 consecutive rounds under par, has made it his goal to become the world’s top-ranked player, is threatening to turn the 2015 Masters into a four-day group hug, and yet he seems so … average?
When young, Woods and Garcia announced their presences with flamboyant play and fearsome power.
Spieth looks average. He is of average height and weight. He does not look like he works out with dumbbells the size of butterball turkeys. No one will ever “Jordan-proof” a golf course, unless they put windmills in front of the holes.
He calls his seniors “Mr.” He is polite when he doesn’t need to be. This is a kinder, gentler kind of phenom, one who is proving you can win with a putter and a brain.
“What a player,” said Els, who is in a four-way tie for second at 67. “You just cannot help but see this kid winning many, many majors. I think he is by far the most balanced kid I’ve seen.
“He’s got that little tenacity to him, and he’s really got a fighting spirit, and he’s the nicest kid in the world.”
Horschel played with Spieth on Thursday. He watched Spieth react in disgust to two shots on 12 — and make birdie. Spieth thought he missed the green. He was wrong. He thought he pulled his putt. It went in.
On 13, Spieth hit a tree, yet made birdie. And on 14, Spieth hit his drive behind a tree on the right side of the fairway, then took a 7-iron, smashed a shot under the branch, cut it into the green, and watched it hit the flagstick, setting him up for the eighth of his nine birdies, two off Anthony Kim’s Masters record.
“I wasn’t that good when I was 21,” Horschel said. “If I had a daughter who was 18-25, I’d hook them up. He’s the kind of guy you pull for. He plays like he’s in his early 30s.”
Spieth birdied the second, fourth, eighth, ninth, 10th, 12th, 13th and 14th to reach 8 under par. Had he played the final four holes in 2 under, he would have set a Masters record with a 62. Instead, he bogeyed the par-5 15th, then birdied the difficult 18th to get back to 8 under.
To recap: Spieth shot a 64 at the Masters without hitting the ball particularly well. He ranked second in putting, behind Matt Kuchar.
“It’s really cool,” Spieth said, about that and just about everything.
Last year, Spieth contended before Bubba Watson pulled away on the back nine Sunday.
Now Spieth is the youngest player to hold the 18-hole lead since Rory McIlroy did it in 2011.
Chasing him is the usual eclectic collection on the Round 1 Masters leaderboard.
Journeyman Charley Hoffman, major winner Justin Rose, the talented Jason Day and the venerable Els are three shots back. Garcia is four shots back, with Russell Henley. Bill Haas, Webb Simpson, Ryan Palmer and Paul Casey are five shots back.
Woods displayed an improved short game and shot a 73 to tie for 41st. Phil Mickelson shot a 70. Tom Watson shot a 71, tying him with tournament favorite McIlroy.
Els, desperately searching for something to end his slump, changed to a lighter driver shaft Wednesday. “I think I’ve finally found something nice, because I drove it nicely yesterday in practice and started feeling some good momentum,” Els said.
If momentum, or luck, or golfing gods exist, they all were on Spieth’s side Thursday.
“I didn’t need a leaderboard today,” Horschel said. “I knew I was playing with the leader.”