The Masters found its new favorite son

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Dan Wetzel
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AUGUSTA, Ga. — The galleries were three deep, five deep, hopelessly deep. They trampled up and down the hills here at Augusta National. They surged around greens and tee boxes. Those in the back craned their necks even if it was pointless.

They roared at every sunk-putt. They never had to react to the disappointment of a bogey. A lot of young men were clad in burnt orange. A lot of young kids got propped up on their father's shoulders. A lot of young women kept fixing their hair, just in case.

This is Jordan Spieth's third Masters but he's already its biggest attraction, the fan favorite and such a dominating player that once again the event is being played on his terms, to his soundtrack of hollering fans. At just 22, Spieth has turned Augusta National into his personal playground, throwing up low numbers on the scoreboards and drawing throngs to a level approaching the heyday of Tiger Woods.

A massive gallery watches Jordan Spieth tee off on the 12th hole. (REUTERS)
A massive gallery watches Jordan Spieth tee off on the 12th hole. (REUTERS)

In his first appearance in 2014, Spieth finished runner-up. Last year he became just the fifth player to ever lead wire-to-wire, tying Woods' mark for lowest score ever at 18-under en route to his first green jacket.

Then came Thursday, where he delivered a 6-under 66 amidst swirling winds.

"I put it up there with one of the best rounds I've played," said Spieth, matter of factly.

It wasn't just the final result, good for a two-shot lead over Danny Lee and Shane Lowry. It was the process. The big saves. The bigger putts. The fist pumps. He even kissed the blade of his putter after draining a tricky 15-footer on No. 16.

It was the energy of the masses cheering on their chosen one.

"It is like playing with a Tiger or a Phil [Mickelson]," said Paul Casey, who played alongside Spieth and shot 4-under that almost no one gave any attention. "Loud in a good way. It was great. It should be loud. You know, he's defending champion."

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Spieth won two majors a year ago and was in contention for a grand slam. He has finished in the top 20 eight out of nine starts this year. He plays well everywhere, his game is built on consistent excellence more than creative shot making. What he lacks in driving distance, he makes up for on the green.

There is something, perhaps, about Augusta though. Something that suits him perfectly and portends a lot of green-clad Aprils to come.

He's never been over par here. He is 29-under all time and 24-under over his last five rounds.

As Spieth walked up No. 18, with the galleries clapping loudly and calling out his name, he turned to playing partner Bryson DeChambeau and marveled at his comfort level here.

"He said, 'I don't know what it is about this place,' " DeChambeau said. "'I just love putting here. I can see the break. I can see the lines.' "

There is still plenty of golf to be played this week. The tournament isn't even close to over.

Of course, it was kind of over last year after Spieth hung an opening round 8-under up there and he ran so far away with the event, no one challenged him. He became the first player to ever reach 19-under here before falling back and tying Woods' 270, set back in 1997 on a shorter course.

And yet this, because he had to navigate the gusting wind, may have been his best effort of all.

"That was a flawless round of golf," Casey said.

"That was a fun day to watch him do that," DeChambeau said.

Whatever trouble Spieth found, he quickly found a way out. There was the 11th, when he smacked his tee shot into some trees on the right side of the fairway. His caddie implored him to try a safe punch out. Spieth waved him off, while contemplating a better option.

"I said, 'Just trust me on this one,' " Spieth said.

So he took a 4-iron, drilled it through a small window between the branches. It wound up 210 yards away on the edge of the green where he could two-putt for another par to the screams of his fans.

"I should not have hit the shot I hit," Spieth said with a laugh.

All's well that happens here at Augusta. Jack Nicklaus won six times here. Arnold Palmer and Woods each have four. They've staged the Masters 78 times and 47 of them have gone to someone who has won more than once. It's a place that lends itself to certain games and Spieth may be at the start of something significant.

And so the fans have followed.

Golf wondered if they'd ever again hear the decibels that Tiger delivered, if the echos through the pines here would ever approach what he was able to bring to the game.

Spieth isn't there yet, but it's close. It's also only the start of Year 3, with another 60-something up on the top of the leaderboard, Jordan Spieth once again looking down on everything below.

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