Woods one-over in return as Spieth surges to Masters lead

Tiger Woods plays his third shot from a bunker on the second hole during the first round of the 2018 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club

Augusta (United States) (AFP) – Tiger Woods felt the love, but it was Jordan Spieth who heard the roars as he surged to a two-stroke lead in the Masters Thursday with a scintillating six-under par 66.

Woods was back at Augusta National for the first time in three years, finally ready to challenge for a fifth green jacket after spinal fusion surgery last year.

From the practice range to the 18th green, the Augusta fans made him more than welcome, although his one-over par 73 gave them few real opportunities to cheer.

“It has been awesome this entire comeback,” Woods said. “I got a standing ovation on the range. Coming up to the first tee, the people come out of the clubhouse and the putting green, they’re really into it.”

The 14-time major winner grabbed his first birdie with a delicate downhill putt at the third.

He followed, however, with back-to-back bogeys.

There was more trouble lurking around Amen Corner, where Woods was right off the tee at 11 and his shot from the trees hit a fan and dropped into the rough.

“It was a great shot there,” said Woods, who ended up with a bogey. “Unfortunately people ran out and it clipped them. Otherwise it’s just short right of the green, an easy up and down from there, where I was trying to leave it.”

A dip in Rae’s Creek at 12 cost him a shot, although he limited the damage with an impressive 18-foot bogey putt.

He pulled strokes back at 14 and 16 and produced two crisp tee shots at 17 and 18 as he capped his round with a pair of solid pars.

“Seventy-three is fine,” Woods said. “I could have easily let it slip away. And I fought hard to get it back and I’m back in this championship.”

That bullish assessment came before Spieth caught fire, stringing together five birdies on the back nine as he seized a two-stroke lead over fellow Americans Matt Kuchar and Tony Finau.

The 24-year-old Texan, who has struggled to find consistency on the greens this season, was even through seven after two birdies and two bogeys.

He rolled in a 14-foot eagle at the eighth, and two-putted from 40-feet for a birdie at 13.

He rolled in a nine-footer at 14, and his pitch at 15 left him a four-footer. He made birdie putts of five and seven feet at 16 and 16 before a terrific bogey save at 18 trimmed his lead.

In the trees off the 18th tee, he could only punch out to the fairway, but his fourth shot left him a tap-in.

“I was fortunate to only make five there,” said Spieth, whose wire-to-wire victory in 2015 was sandwiched between runner-up finishes in 2014 and 2016.

“I’m not going to get ahead of myself,” he added. “It’s just about riding momentum.”

– Excruciating ankle pain –

Finau didn’t even know if he’d make it to the first tee after suffering a “pretty excruciating” ankle injury celebrating a hole-in-one in the par-three contest on Wednesday.

He said there was “no way on Earth” he would have foreseen sharing second place.

But once doctors told him he could do no further damage, he was determined to play and was rewarded with a debut Masters round that included six birdies and two bogeys.

Kuchar, two-over through seven holes, had five birdies on the back nine to join him on 68.

Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, who can complete a career Grand Slam with a first Masters victory, headed a group of seven players on three-under 69.

He was joined by Masters newcomer Li Haotong of China, former British Open champion Henrik Stenson of Sweden, Spain’s Rafael Cabrera Bello, Canadian Adam Hadwin and Americans Patrick Reed and Charley Hoffman.

Li, the first Chinese man to crack the top 50 in the world rankings, moved to four-under with an impressive run of three birdies over Augusta’s Amen Corner trio of holes — 11, 12 and 13 — but dropped a shot at 18.

– Garcia nightmare –

Spain’s Sergio Garcia endured a nightmare start in his bid to join Woods, Nick Faldo and Jack Nicklaus as the only players to successfully defend the Masters crown.

Garcia matched the most strokes needed on any hole in Masters history with his 13 at the par-five 15th — where he hit five consecutive balls in the water.

Garcia signed for a nine-over par 81, tied for next to last place with amateur Matt Parziale.