Masters Lookahead: Spieth’s Wire-to-Wire Chances, Tiger’s Par-5 Struggles, More
With the first round of the 82nd Masters Tournament in the books, let’s take a look at some of the important numbers from the day — and what they could all mean looking ahead.
You’re forgiven if the first thing you think of upon hearing “Jordan Spieth leads the Masters” are two shots that landed in Rae’s Creek from that fateful Sunday two years ago. The reality, though, is that Spieth has made an astounding habit of leading at this tournament. He’s now played 17 rounds and led after nine of them, including his wire-to-wire victory in 2015. What does it mean now that he owns a two-stroke lead once again? Only that there’s nobody in the field more comfortable playing from that position than he is. There have been just five wire-to-wire wins in Masters history, but we at least know this much: He’s capable of doing it, because he’s done it before. (For what it’s worth, Spieth, who was +985 this morning on 5dimes to win a second Green Jacket, is now the prohibitive favorite at +210.)
Tony Finau was a game-time decision Thursday after dislocating his ankle while celebrating a hole-in-one during the Par-3 Contest. He performed beyond admirably in the opening round with a 68 and stole story-of-the-day honors from his more ballyhooed fellow competitors. Not to go all Debbie Downer, but you have to wonder how much of that was due to adrenaline for the first-time participant, something even Finau himself admitted after the round. There’s an old adage that states, “Beware the injured golfer,” but if Finau is indeed hurting, the second round could be where an impact is truly felt.
Tiger Woods traditionally just throws a few jabs in the first round, seeing what the course will give him, as evidenced by only one career Thursday round in the 60s. Expect him to get more aggressive in the second round, especially on the par-5s, which he’s played 142-under in his career, but he was a disappointing level-par (with pars on all four) Thursday. He’ll need at least a few birdies on those holes Friday if he’s going to climb back into contention — and for a guy who’s made a habit of dominating these holes through the years, it would be surprising if he doesn’t pick up at least two strokes there.
I wrote before the tournament teed off that rain doesn’t affect players as much at Augusta as it does at other events, because the SubAir system under the greens keeps the speed consistent throughout the day and players aren’t forced to adapt as much mid-round. It might, however, affect Marc Leishman, who posted a 2-under 70. While warm, sunny weather is expected Friday, storms are in the forecast this weekend. Leishman is a noted low-ball hitter who will need to be more precise than his high-ball-hitting peers to succeed on damp turf. If the wind blows, though, expect that same wet-weather disadvantage to turn into an advantage for the big Aussie.
Speaking of Leishman and Woods, who are playing together in the opening two rounds, there’s been a lot of talk this year about Tiger’s playing partner being at a distinct disadvantage due to massive galleries often watching his shots, then running ahead and causing commotion while others play. At Augusta, that hardly comes into play. The presence of more respectful spectators guarantees a better setting for these players to keep their focus.
Since the Masters enlists one continuous tee sheet as opposed to opposite waves like most other events do, there’s really no specific breakdown of scoring-average differences between those who teed off early and late. But a quick glance at the leaderboard tells us that afternoon players were just as good — if not better — than their morning counterparts, as they got warmer temperatures and what seemed to be less wind. If the trend continues, it will even things out Friday; but if some late winds start blowing through the loblolly pines, the likes of Spieth and Finau — not to mention Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson — could have an advantage in the early going.
Following his third-place finish at last year’s British Open, Haotong Li was told he’d qualified for the Masters. His reaction? “Wow, that’s a big gift. Huge, huge.” With a 3-under 69 in the first round, the 22-year-old is gaining even more exposure. And he deserves it. Already a two-time European Tour winner, Li might be the next young stud to assert himself as a world-class player. Considering it’s his first time at Augusta, some will assume he’ll soon fade off the leaderboard, but that strong finish at Birkdale should show he’s capable of hanging around.
Charley Hoffman opened with a 3-under 69, which has become — all together now — a tradition unlike any other. Hoffman is now a combined 16-under par in the opening rounds of his past four Masters starts. The red numbers don’t often continue, though. Hoffman’s previous three low openers have been followed by second rounds at a combined 4-over, which includes a 68 in 2015, but a 77 and 75 the past two years. Perhaps Hoffman has learned from those past experiences, but if there’s anything this trend tells us, it’s that prosperity is often fleeting for him after Thursday.
Maybe Henrik Stenson has figured something out. Maybe after a career of relative futility at Augusta National, he arrived at the course on Wednesday — that’s right; the last player to show up this week — and it all clicked. You can certainly come to that conclusion. Or you could theorize that on his 42nd birthday, Stenson posted a 3-under 69 during which he walked a tightrope the entire time. He may very well be on the way to improving upon his career-best T-14 result, but history has shown that it might only be a matter of time before he drops off the leaderboard.
Looking for a bounce-back performance on Friday? I really liked Patrick Cantlay entering the week, believing that Augusta National suits both his game and his personality. He posted a 3-over 75 on Thursday, with bookend double-bogeys on the first and last holes. Expect steadier play in the second round, maybe even something in the 60s.
I’ll also have another bounce-back player I like featured in tomorrow morning’s Action Network newsletter. Subscribe (for free) here.