Augusta: Jordan Spieth`s love affair with Augusta National continued on Thursday as the reigning Masters champion fired a flawless six-under-par 66 to seize an early three-shot clubhouse lead in the opening round.
The American world number two, bidding to become only the fourth player to claim back-to-back Masters victories, took advantage of relatively calm morning conditions to storm to the top of the leaderboard.
Shaking off a run of inconsistent form in recent weeks on the PGA Tour, Spieth sank a six-footer at the third, a 13-footer at the sixth and a four-footer at the eighth to reach the turn in three-under 33.
He then picked up further strokes at the 10th, 13th and 18th, where he rolled in a six-foot putt before pumping his fist in celebration, to finish three ahead of Englishmen Paul Casey and Justin Rose in the year`s opening major championship.
Out on the course, Ireland`s Shane Lowry was at five-under after completing 10 holes while pre-tournament favourite and world number one Jason Day of Australia was four-under after 13.
"I would have signed for two-under today and not even played the round, knowing the conditions that were coming up," said the 22-year-old Spieth, who is aiming to emulate Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods with consecutive Green Jackets.
"Got a lot out of the round with what I felt like was kind of average-ish ball striking. Just scored the ball extremely well, which is something I`ve been struggling with this season.
"I put it up there with one of the best rounds I`ve played, one of the best rounds I`ve scored."
Casey, who played in Spieth`s company, was hugely impressed by the reigning champion`s 66.
"That was a flawless round of golf," said Casey, who shot a 69 on an increasingly blustery day. "One of the toughest days I`ve ever seen around Augusta National.
"Although, I think we got let off the hook with the rain last night, still incredibly tough. I played a wonderful round of golf, but it was great to have a front row seat to watch that."
Spieth won the PGA Tour`s Hyundai Tournament of Champions in January, but struggled to string together four good rounds in his next five strokeplay starts before returning this week to the welcome surroundings of Augusta National.
He tied for second on his Masters debut in 2014, then last year stunned the golf world as he completed a wire-to-wire victory by four shots, matching Woods` tournament record low of 18-under 270 for 72 holes.
While Spieth flourished in Thursday`s opening round, former world number one Ernie Els made a nightmare start as he six-putted from just shy of three feet at the par-four first to run up a mind-boggling nine.
It was the worst ever Masters score on that hole by one shot and left South African Els, who has struggled badly with his short putting for much of the past 12 months, shaking his head in disbelief.
Among the late starters, Northern Irish world number three Rory McIlroy was at two-under after nine holes in his bid to complete a career grand slam of golf`s four blue riband events.