Jordan Spieth’s tee shot hooked far left of the 17th fairway at Riviera Country Club on Thursday, his ball nestled in the thick kikuyu grass and two huge Eucalyptus trees blocking his path to the green.
With 324 yards to the pin on the 590-yard, par-five hole, Spieth tried to curl his next shot onto the fairway and toward the green. He did not succeed, his ball finding the rough to the right of the fairway and still 140 yards short of the hole.
“No, turn, sit down!” Spieth, who started the opening round of the Genesis Invitational on the 10th tee, yelled after striking his second shot on 17. “I just could not have played this hole worse!”
Two shots later — a beautiful 142-yard approach to within 11 feet of the hole and a steely midrange putt for birdie — Spieth was out of trouble and on his way to a five-under-par 66, a strong first round that put the Dallas native and three-time major champion in a four-way tie for second place.
Joaquin Niemann, a rail-thin 23-year-old from Chile who has one PGA Tour win, scorched the iconic Pacific Palisades course with an eight-under 63 in the afternoon session, tying him with eight others for the lowest opening-round score in Riviera history.
“That has to be one of my best days on the golf course, especially in a place like this — Riviera is one of my favorite courses, and this is my favorite event of the year,” said Niemann, who had nine birdies and one bogey. “Everything was working. I hit the ball great off the tee and with my irons. I was hitting it really close, so that made it a little easier.”
Max Homa, the defending tournament champion from Santa Clarita, Scottie Scheffler, coming off of his first tour win at the WM Phoenix Open, and 24-year-old rookie Cameron Young tied Spieth at five under. Homa’s round was highlighted by a 78-foot, right-to-left-breaking putt from the fringe for an eagle on No. 10.
“I woke up a little antsy just knowing … I guess I don’t really know why,” Homa, 31, said. “Probably just too much in my head. But when I got to the range, I felt really good, and when I got to the first tee, I knew they were going to say, ‘defending champion,’ or whatever, so that was different.
“But it was cool. I got a nice ovation. I’ve been on this tee a million times watching and playing, and now to get to hear that was pretty special.”
Spieth, who has 12 tour victories and $49 million in career earnings, has never won at Riviera, though he was part of the Texas team that won an NCAA title here in 2012. With shots like he made on 17 Thursday, he should be in the hunt.
“I was able to make a four there that really shouldn’t have been a four,” Spieth, 28, said. “Sometimes, when you start to really … I had a really good attitude today. I played this course with more patience than I typically do, and you need that.
“After a bad three-putt on 14, I came back and made one on 15. It seemed like the stuff that happened on 17, you kind of get rewarded when you’re in the right mindset. It’s weird how it works like that, so it’s a lesson learned.”
Spieth, a rising star when he won 11 times from 2013 to 2017, was not in a very good place mentally or physically from 2018 to 2020.
He suffered a bone chip in his left hand in early 2018 and tried to play through the injury instead of undergoing surgery. A weakened grip fueled some inconsistencies in his swing. Spieth did not win a tournament for three straight seasons, and he fell out of the top 50 in the World Golf Rankings.
But Spieth spent much of 2021 rebuilding his swing and returned to the winner’s circle at the Valero Texas Open. He is healthy, he has solidified his short game — he shot five under despite hitting only five fairways Thursday — and his extra work on the putting green is paying off. He has moved up to No. 14 in the rankings.
Spieth sank 12-foot birdie putts on Nos. 11 and 7, a 20-foot birdie putt on No. 15 and a nice six-foot comebacker for par on No. 4. He had seven birdies and two bogeys in his round, salvaging par on No. 5 with a 32-yard chip shot from a tough downhill lie to within two feet of the pin.
“I put in a lot of work the last three days on the putting green, hours and hours with Cameron [McCormick] to really get comfortable stroking it,” Spieth said of his swing coach. “It was nice to feel like that hard work paid off by getting a break on the first couple of holes, and I was able to putt pretty confidently from there.
“I’ve been striking the ball really well for the last six months. … I have a lot more tools. I feel like I can hit any shot if it presents itself fearlessly. At this point last year, I still felt a lot more scar tissue.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.