A defenceless Augusta National lay at the mercy of the game’s best players on day one of the Masters and many took advantage.
With the course soft and breathless, Augusta lacked its usual bite but despite a timid opening test, the leaderboard is packed with potential storylines, and the golfing gods are about to have their say in the script.
Friday’s early starters have the chance to build ahead of steam before the weather rolls in; good news for Rory McIlroy who must go on the attack to ensure he’s not left behind before the weekend.
Many bemoaned McIlroy’s conservative play on Thursday, insisting he must freewheel from the off in order to best launch his grand slam charge. And while the man himself will say he likes to ease himself into the tournament rather than blow himself out of it on a reckless rampage, another theory is that the burden of history anchors McIlroy to the ground at Augusta like nowhere else.
Once again McIlroy found himself stuck in the mud when so many rivals ploughed useful furrows. An opening 65 looked all but assured when Jon Rahm four-putted the first green. Taking inspiration from Seve’s quote after a similar Masters four-stab, “Well, I miss, I miss, I miss, I make,” the loco toro thought as he kept his cool to brush aside a first hole double and lay down a marker, having been somehow the overlooked member of golf’s big three coming into the week.
Elsewhere, the brash Brooks Koepka claims to be a man reborn, declaring that he still expects to win majors after posting an opening 65 of his own.
The jury remains out on whether Koepka remains the closer he was when amassing four quick-fire majors between 2017-19. Fans of the Netflix Full Swing series would certainly have their doubts, but Brooks talking a big game brings intrigue. Whether or not he’s just trying to convince himself that he’s still the killer of old, 54-holes around Augusta will soon tell.
Given the course lay vulnerable to the best in show on Thursday, Augusta did take measures to tuck pins and protect records. 65 was an impressive number, three of them even more so as Viktor Hovland, sporting a shirt that looked like the meat dress Lady Gaga wore to the MTV awards in 2010, made it a three-way tie at the top.
A bit of a forgotten man, the Norwegian minced it around blemish-free, even pulling off an all-time up-and-down short-sided on 10 that provided evidence his chipping isn’t all that bad after all, at least of a Thursday.
Indeed it’s early days and the chasing pack is loaded with talent but while a revitalised Jason Day and a rip-roaring Cam Young caught the eye at five-under, defending champion Scottie Scheffler was particularly noteworthy.
Playing alongside the fearless amateur Sam Bennett who shot a brilliant bogey-free four-under 68 worthy of acclaim, Scheffler also signed for a 68 so subdued that it felt ten shots worse. The world number one played like it from tee to green. Footloose and ferocious in approach, he ranked second in strokes gained tee to green.
He ranked second last in putting.
That Scheffler lost three and a half strokes to the field in putting in the seventh worst putting performance of his career and still shot 68 is a sobering thought.
And speaking of putting. Shane Lowry missed the hole completely with a four putt birdie attempt at the first. A lesser man would’ve immediately been thinking, not again, given his woes with the short blade of late. Not Lowry, who carded five birdies as his confidence grows between the pines with each visit.
From Clara to fair weather golf in Florida, Lowry wasn’t about to do a rain dance as the Georgia storms loom but there may have been a wee Irish jig in his gut for a glint in his eye suggested that by hard graft or divine intervention, he’s arrived to Augusta with a golf game capable of contending. The Champions Dinner menu has gone without beef and Guinness stew and Romanitca ice-cream for too long.
As for past champions, few courses favour experience quite like Augusta and Adam Scott (-4) and Jordan Spieth (-3) certainly left an early mark. However, it was another past Master who reminded the golf world of his mercurial talents on day one. The ghost of Phil Mickelson served up arguably the best birdie of the opening day, and if you have the magnificent Masters app, you should check it out right now!
Fanning one wild right from the second tee into the trees, Mickelson pulls driver from the pine straw and launches one at an impossible gap, the light at the end of the tunnel so bleak that his recovery hits a branch and dives hard left, taking a turn for the worse.
Finding a cart path, Phil’s pill is spotted moseying down among the patrons as if looking for a cold beer to cool off. It comes to rest just about adjacent to the second green.
He takes a drop next to the signpost that’s directing patrons to Restrooms, Concession stands and Amen Corner. Only Mickelson can see the arrow pointing to High Heaven.
With his trusty lob wedge in hand, he sends one skyward and makes it stick. Patented Lefty magic that flops unflappably to five feet before he duly dispatches the uphill birdie putt.
That Mickelson tied with Max Homa and Dustin Johnson at one-under on Thursday showed there’s plenty of life in Lefty yet. That he also signed for the same score as 63-year old Fred Couples proves that Augusta National remains a field of dreams for the ages… all ages, from 23-year old amateur Bennett with his father’s final written message – Don’t Wait To Do Something – tattooed on his arm, to 83-year old Jack Nicklaus, still finding the sweet spot as ceremonial starter, and still driving his own tee peg into the ground every chance he gets.
Luckily for us, we get three more days at Augusta for this year at least. Bring it on!
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