Quick! Somebody tell Saul Syler to cancel lunch at Chaisson with Suzanne Pleshette, because we’ve got a Hollywood blockbuster to produce: The biggest names of the post-Tiger Woods golf era stand 1-2 on the leaderboard halfwy through the 2016 Mssters. Defending Champion Jordan Spieth leads after surviving howling winds, a pedestrian ball striking day, and getting put on the clock twice to post a two day total of 4-under, one shot clear of Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy who fired the best round of the day, a 71, in weather more akin to an Open Championship than springtime in Georgia. Meanwhile scene-stealing amateur Bryson DeChambeau has become the tournament’s darling with his brilliant play, surging into contention despite a triple bogey to close Friday’s round. He stands four shots back at even par.
Seriously – somebody call Ryan Gosling, Leo DiCaprio and Mark Wahlberg, (for Jordan, Rory and Bryson, respectively), because this has the makings of a box office mega-watt hit. On the one hand, you have Spieth: the young, handsome, affable, kindly double-major winning Jordan Spieth, who just inked a deal with Webster's Dictionary to have his picture set next to the entry for "role model."
Written off by most sports writers for shaky recent form, he roared out of the gate with a bogey-free 66 on Thursday. His lead was as large as five as he played the front nine, and for a while everyone thought we see another Martin Kaymer-esque runaway like the 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst. But suddenly Spieth started leaking oil down the stretch, bogeying 16 and 17 while McIlroy birdied 13, 15 and 16 and the laugher turned into a nail-biter.
“Boy, that golf course changed very much throughout the day," Spieth said. "I had 4‑iron into No. 1 and landed it on the top tier and stuck it. And then 9‑irons were pounding over greens by the end of day….We were trying to adjust with ever‑gusting and changing winds. It just was a really difficult day to score."
On the other hand, you have four-time major winner Rory McIlroy, whose 71 was tied for three others for best round of the day, who echoed Spieth's sentiments.
“You just have to look at the scores today to see how tough it was,” said McIlroy, referring to the bloated 75.02 scoring average.
He sits one shot ahead of Scott Piercy and Danny Lee who are both 2 under for the tournament. Brandt Snedeker, Denmark’s Soren Kjeldsen and Hideki Matsuyama are all at 1 under, three shots back of Spieth.
Still, the biggest feel-good story of the tournament thus far has been the performance of breakout star and reigning U.S. Amateur champion Bryson DeChambeau. His mercurial exploits and colorful personality have resulted in an overflowing bandwagon of new fans, who I call DeCham-bros. (Dear media: You’re welcome!)
Forget all that quiet, grateful, “just glad to be here” stuff amateurs are supposed to exude for a personality, this guy is a character. He named some of his golf clubs after players who did well at Augusta, and actually calls that out to his caddie. As in “Hand me Jimmy,” instead of “hand me my 50-degree wedge.” (Jimmy Demaret won the 1950 Masters.) He wears the Ben Hogan cap even though he looks completely incongruous in it. Hogan caps belong on slim, lithe gentlemen. With his chiseled features and burly physique, DeChambeau looks more like he should be wearing a football helmet. He’s so into golf techno-babble that when he played a practice round with Phil Mickelson, the two geeked out so badly on gear and technique for 18 holes, they made the more organic-styled Dustin Johnson comment - per pre-eminent sports radio broadcaster Steve Czaban - something along the lines of, “If I had to listen to those guys for one more minute, I’d never be able to hit a golf ball ever again.”
It obviously works, though, because he wallpapered the Olympia Fields clubhouse with Derek Bard in the 2015 U.S. Amateur and followed that up by carding birdies yesterday at 1, 7, 9, 11 and 12 – all the hard holes! Then he went out and played his first 35 holes at Augusta 3-under and he did it with fire, spunk, and moxie. He had six birdies yesterday. That was Arnold Palmer-esque.
Oh yeah, he named his 60-degree wedge "King"...after Arnie's 1960 win. Now that's paying homage to golf history.
Before that ghastly triple at 18, he had every writer in the media tent scrambling either for the history books or a cigarette with Dan Jenkins to rustle up stories of other great amateur performances in the Masters, including Ken Venturi’s runner-up in 1956 (which he could have won), Billy Joe Patton’s third in 1954 (he had an ace at No. 6 on Sunday, an ace Jenkins missed because he was getting coffee at the snack shack) and Charlie Coe’s 2nd in 1961.
“It was pretty special," DeChambeau said. "To come out here and play as good of golf as I have, it's definitely one that I've been not only dreaming of but sort of knew that I could do it, as well. I knew that I was hitting it really well the past couple days coming in, and even the week before, coming into this week. I was really prepared with the golf course, comfortable out there."
Then he did what more experienced athletes do: He put that seven on 18 out of his mind. He actually laughed about it in the media center. That’s the mental toughness needed to be a champion golfer: short memory on the bad shots and tough holes.
“I’m only four shots back,” he noted laconically, but with a satisfied grin. Why not? He has nothing to lose, so he has nothing to fear.
Finally, a large group of players at 1-over includes Jason Day, pre-tournament favorite of many pundits. Day again raced out to a great front nine, but faltered on the back nine. If the Masters truly begins on the back nine on Sunday, Day will want to change this trend because he's gone 41-39 on that side thus far. Still, with the wind wreaking havoc on the scorecards, it's a great equalizer, a restrictor plate on the field, to steal a metaphor from NASCAR. (Somewhere, my buddy and colleague Jay Busbee is nodding his approval.) Wind and weather are the great equalizer. Just ask Tom Watson, who almost stole an Open Championship in the wind and rain at Turnberry in 2009. He was 59. Now at 66, he closed out his final Masters by missing the cut, (74-78=152, 8-over), but giving us all one more laugh-a-minute romp of a media center interview.
"I'm glad I don't have to hit 3-wood and 5-wood into 18 any more," he deadpanned, as the room fell apart in laughter. It wasn't singing "Back Door Man" by the Doors at us, like he did at Pebble Beach in 2010, but it was still that old Watson charm. It was a great way to ride off into the Georgia sunset.
So as we head to the weekend, youth is served. The next generation has arrived and they are roaring. If you were wondering if we could survive golf after Tiger Woods, the answer is clear: Golf hasn’t missed a step. We've got a blockbuster on our hands. You want gripping drama? We have it. You want mega-watt star power? The best in the world are atop the leaderboard. You want glittering set pieces? Two words: Augusta National. A Green Jacket, an honorary membership to the club, and everlasting glory hang in the balance. Move over, "The Force Awakens," and tell "Avatar" the news.
NEWS, NOTES, AND QUOTES
For all those people screaming ,“They better not penalize any of the leaders for slow play,” yes, they better. Slow play has become pandemic at all levels of the game. Five hour rounds are common on tour sometimes. And when it comes to the rank-and-file golfer – monkey see, monkey do – they imitate what they see on TV, thinking it will be good for their game too. If somebody has to lose a tournament because of a time penalty, so be it. Maybe the rest of them will finally get the message and take it seriously.