Jordan Spieth leads by two after opening round of Masters
Defending champion Jordan Spieth assumed his customary position on top of the leaderboard with a brilliant 66 as Shane Lowry led a powerful European challenge for a first Masters title since 1999.
Spieth, who was second on his debut in 2014 and claimed a first green jacket with a record-breaking performance 12 months ago, carded six birdies and no bogeys despite swirling winds on the opening day at Augusta National.
That gave the 22-year-old a two-shot lead over Lowry and New Zealand's Danny Lee, with Paul Casey, Justin Rose, Ian Poulter, Sergio Garcia and Soren Kjeldsen all a shot behind on three under.
Rory McIlroy, who is seeking a first Masters title to complete the career grand slam, was a shot further back alongside Danny Willett, with McIlroy dropping shots on the 16th and 18th and Willett making his only bogey of the day on the last.
World number one Jason Day was a shot off the lead when he raced to the turn in 31 with an eagle and three birdies, but dropped five shots in his last four holes - including a triple bogey on the 16th - to finish level par.
Spieth, who is looking to become just the fourth player after Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods to successfully defend the year's first major championship, led from start to finish after an opening 64 last year and w as quickly into his stride with birdies on the third, sixth and eighth.
The world number two, who set records for the highest number of birdies (28) and lowest 36 and 54-hole totals in Masters history last year, also birdied the 10th, 13th and 18th, but was equally pleased to scramble pars on the 11th, 12th and 16th.
"I would have signed for two under today and not even played the round, knowing the conditions that were coming up," said Spieth, who is a record 29 under par for his nine competitive rounds in the Masters. His position after each of those rounds reads 12-3-1-2-1-1-1-1-1.
"I got a lot out of the round with what I felt like was kind of average‑ish ball‑striking. I got the most I could probably get out of my round today. I think the round today may have been better than the first round last year because of the conditions, I definitely could make that argument."
Playing partner Casey, who was sixth last year and also on his debut in 2004, was similarly impressed, adding: " That was a flawless round of golf. When he got into trouble.... he bailed out in the right place and what could have been an error, he turned into a wonderful par save. It was absolutely flawless.
"One of the toughest days I've ever seen around Augusta National. I played a wonderful round of golf, but it was great to have a front row seat to watch that."
Lowry, who won the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone last year, carded four birdies in succession from the second and picked up another shot on the ninth to match Day's outward half of 31.
The 29-year-old dropped his only shot of the day on the 12th but was not about to get carried away with too many thoughts of winning a first major title in "the best place in the world."
"It 's hard not to," Lowry admitted. "I'm sure I'm going to be sitting back tonight thinking at some stage about wearing a green jacket. I'm only human. I'm going to do that.
" But I've just got to kind of give myself a slap in the face and get myself back into reality and try to get down to business and keep hitting good shots and see where that leaves me at the end of the week.
" I've been here since last Saturday. I've played a lot of golf here this week and I do feel really comfortable around the place.
" It's a bit intimidating driving in the gates of Magnolia Lane to play the Masters. It was last year. And hopefully I'll be coming here for many years and hopefully I've got that out of the way now. The only way I can describe it is the best place in the world."
McIlroy might not feel quite the same after following an eagle on the 13th with a three-putt bogey on the 16th and then plugging his approach to the 18th in a bunker, but the four-time major winner echoed Spieth's earlier thoughts.
"If someone had given me 70 on the first tee I probably would have taken it," said McIlroy, who was seven behind Spieth after an opening 71 last year. "It's a little disappointing with the way I finished, but anything under par was a good score."
Day put a similarly brave face on his back nine of 41 after his hopes of a second major title and third win in succession suffered a massive blow.
"I'm not too frustrated with how everything went," Day said. "Yeah, it's not the way I planned it out today, but I felt like I played some really good golf up until then.
"If you get yourself out of position here at this course it's very difficult to salvage par. And unfortunately starting at 15 I got myself out of position pretty good. T here was only four bad holes, really, in amongst some really terrific golf."