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Jordan Spieth steals a little bit of Tiger Woods’ comeback thunder

Jordan Spieth lines up a putt on the

Jordan Spieth lines up a putt on the second hole during the first round of the 2018 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on April 5, 2018 in Augusta, Georgia. Credit: Getty Images / Andrew Redington

AUGUSTA, Ga. — The start of this Masters was thick with anticipation about a comeback. All of golf was looking forward to seeing a return to form of a big-time player here at Augusta National, where he first hit it big.

Sure enough, it happened. Jordan Spieth made a back-nine rush and took the first-round lead. Also, Tiger Woods was solid.

The latter played his first Masters round after spinal fusion surgery that saved his career and was encouraged. He saved bogey after hitting into the water on the par-3 12th and played the final six holes in 2 under to end up with a 1-over-par 73.

“I could have easily let the round slip away from me, but I got it back. And I’m right back in this tournament,” said Woods, whose presence was the key to making so many people say this was the most eagerly awaited Masters ever.

But Spieth, coming off a poor start to the year following a tough go with mononucleosis last December, upstaged Woods and outperformed everyone in the field. He birdied five holes in a row — Nos. 13 through 17 — and made a spirited bogey save of his own on 18 to finish in first place with a 66. It was a sign that he has found his game and that he is at his best on the course he likes the most. Not that he is taking anything for granted.

“It’s only round one,” he said after finishing the day two shots ahead of Tony Finau and Matt Kuchar. “I know as well as anybody that anything happens here at Augusta National.”

He was referring to the fact he nearly won here as a rookie in 2014, did win handily in 2015 and was on his way to another win in 2016 before a meltdown on No. 12 in the final round.

“I’ll always have demons out here, but I’ll always have a tremendous amount of confidence out here,” Spieth said, adding that he will rely on both the rest of the way. “Today, I felt the Sunday-type pressure of leading the Masters in the middle of my back nine, and adjusted extremely well.”

It helped that he repeatedly hit shots close, and that he felt comfortable again with his putter, his best club. He also felt like he could breathe freely, literally. Through the early part of the year, he was on what he called “allergy medication and all kinds of stuff.

“It just kind of made me feel weird. So I got off everything I was on and went to some all-natural-type stuff,” he said.

He looks like a natural fit at Augusta, having led after a round nine times in his career. The finish particularly pleased him after he had wound up left of the par-4 18th in three. Spieth chipped over the rolling green and had little more than a tap-in for five. “Probably couldn’t have gotten closer with a whole bucket of balls,” he said.

Woods was similarly pleased with a bogey. He needed something to turn right after the 11th, when he lost roll on a recovery shot from the right trees when his ball hit spectators. He made 5 on the par-4 and was at plus-2. Then he dunked his tee shot on 12 in the drink. After a drop, he pitched up only to the fringe. But he made a 20-footer for bogey and was on his way.

His fans boosted him, having started with a standing ovation when he arrived at the driving range in the morning. It was uplifting for the all-time great whose pain was so bad here last year he did not play and could barely sit through the Champions Dinner. He had figured his career was over before the surgery.

“It felt great to be back out there again. I came up here the last couple of years just to have food,” said the man who devoured the atmosphere this year having last played in 2015. Then again, he was not sentimental when he reached the first tee. He described his thought this way: “Hit a little fade up the left side.”

It didn’t fade, ending up in the left trees, but he saved par anyway.

That was the start of the battle that has him anticipating a big weekend.

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