Ernie Els remembers it clearly, a second-round 67 in his first Masters in 1994, a move into the top five and an invigorating compliment from playing partner Ben Crenshaw.
“He was so gracious, so nice,” Els recalled Thursday. “He said, ‘You know, you’re going to win this tournament if you keep putting like that.’”
Els could only chuckle. Twenty-one years later, at age 45, he’s still waiting to snag his first green jacket, still trying to solve Augusta National’s many riddles.
As fate would have it, he found himself paying Crenshaw’s praise forward Thursday — to a 21-year-old, no less, a cold-blooded competitor in Jordan Spieth who put up an imposing roadblock to Els’ latest pursuit of a Masters title.
Els’ five-under-par 67 could have been the story of the opening round. Only Spieth took a blowtorch to the Augusta grounds with an eight-under 64 for a three-shot lead.
And Spieth could have tied the major championship record of 63 if not for a bogey on the par-five 15th.
“You just cannot see this kid not winning many, many majors,” Els said. “He is by far the most balanced kid I’ve seen. … He’s got that little tenacity to him. He’s really got a fighting spirit.”
It’s easy to understand why Els feels that way. Spieth is the hottest player on the PGA Tour — he has finished first or second in his last three starts — and he found the zone again Thursday, particularly during a seven-hole stretch on Nos. 8-14 that he played in six under.
No shot was more impressive than his approach to the 14th. After pushing his drive into the rough and leaving himself an awkward look — 182 yards to the pin, ball above his feet, partially obstructed by low-hanging pine branches — Spieth ripped a seven-iron and cut it perfectly. He hit it so pure, it bounced off the flag stick and almost fell for eagle.
“I just wanted to carry the ridge [in front of the green],” Spieth said. “And when it did, I kind of looked down and just heard the crazy roar and the sigh at the end of the roar. So I figured it had hit the pin and ended up pretty good.”
That was Spieth’s day in a nutshell. Good shots. Fortunate breaks. Low scores.
But when the word “destiny” came up in his post-round news conference, Spieth swatted it away as premature.
“It’s Round 1,” he asserted.
And 29 players joined Spieth under par, including defending champion Bubba Watson and career Grand Slam stalker Rory McIlroy, both at 71.
Jason Day, Justin Rose and Charley Hoffman joined Els at 67. Russell Henley and Sergio Garcia were tied for sixth at 68.
Els’ surge was as unexpected as it was impressive. He had never shot an opening round in the 60s at Augusta National, had missed the cut in four of his previous seven appearances and hadn’t finished a day in the top 20 since 2006.
On top of all that, his game has been a mess this season with four missed cuts and, most recently, a tie for 57th at the Houston Open.
And yet …
“I felt at ease for some reason,” the four-time major champion said. “I felt patient.”
That’s a learned quality here, particularly with a record that includes six top-10 finishes and five missed cuts.
Still, smart money favors Spieth as the more likely player to keep the momentum rolling. Last year’s runner-up finish in his Masters debut at age 20 provided confidence. Thursday’s round won’t hurt.
Asked how it felt to hang a 64 on Augusta, Spieth grinned.
“Really cool,” he said. “I’d take three more.”
That’s asking a bit much. But everyone at Augusta, Spieth included, knows he has the game and the composure to stay locked in.