The cheers broke the morning calm at Augusta National when Arnold Palmer took a mighty swing at his ceremonial tee shot. For the next 11 hours on Thursday, the Masters went mute. Throw together a course that has grown 500 yards with brittle
conditions, and there wasn’t much to cheer.
Justin Rose was as proud of his 15 pars as his three birdies in a round of 69, which left him atop the leaderboard with Masters rookie Brett Wetterich. It was the highest score to lead the first round at the Masters in eight years.
Tiger Woods tossed away a solid round with bogeys on his final two holes for a 73. Phil Mickelson shot a 76, his worst start at the Masters in 10 years, and still was optimistic about winning another green jacket. Never mind that no one has ever won the Masters after opening with a score worse than 75.
Then again, this was not the Masters everyone has come to embrace for several years. Birdies were rare. And the so-called ”cathedral of golf” was every bit of that for one reason. It was quiet.
”I was chatting with my caddie, and we were discussing how muted the atmosphere was,” David Howell said. ”But very pleasant.”
Maybe it was pleasant for the nine players who managed to break par, a group that included Howell and David Toms at 70, and Rich Beem, Tim Clark, JJ Henry, Zach Johnson and Augusta resident Vaughn Taylor at 71.
It was a nightmare for the dozen players who couldn’t break 80. The average score was 76,187, the highest in four years.
And it wasn’t much fun for just about everyone else who finally saw what Augusta National looks like at 7 445 yards in super slick and dreadfully dry conditions.
”It’s hard. And when you start playing defensively, it plays harder,” Steve Stricker said after a 77. ”It’s one shot after another where you’re up against it. You’re nervous on every shot.”
Rose hasn’t played in five weeks while taking care of a sore back, and put together the most remarkable round because it contained no bogeys. He hit a wedge to tap-in range at number three, holed a bunker shot on number five and rolled in a 15-foot birdie from the fringe on number 14.
”That’s exciting to go bogey-free on any course on any day,” Rose said. ”But first round at Augusta on a day where obviously the scores are pretty high makes it a very pleasing round. Yeah, one that I’m very happy with, for sure.”
Wetterich can’t relate to any of this as an Augusta National rookie. His experience comes from practice rounds, especially one with Florida neighbour Raymond Floyd, the 1976 Masters champion.
”I thought it was a good test of golf out there,” Wetterich said. ”To me, they don’t have to do any changes.”
And then there was Toms, who last year said the Masters has so many rules that players ”walk around on egg shells.” If that had been the case on Thursday, the sound would have been deafening.
This was about as exciting as the first round of the 2003 Masters, which was rained out.
Augusta National is renowned for its pockets of roars that resonate through Amen Corner and along the back nine. And there was cause for excitement, such as Howell narrowly clearing the pond on the 15th with his three-iron for a short eagle putt, and Beem making eagle on the 13th with a five-wood into the green.
Otherwise, it was a day to play defence.
”I would have liked to have made a birdie,” Dean Wilson said after a 75. ”But when you look up and no one else is doing it, it gives me a boost. I didn’t hear the roars Augusta National is famous for.”
For the longest time, it looked as though Woods might go through the day without a birdie. His best putts were for par — one was for bogey on the seventh hole — until he hit a sand wedge into four feet for birdie on the 13th, and reached the par-five 15th in two for another one. Suddenly, he was one under and starting to challenge the leaders.
Then came a tee shot in the trees on the 17th, and an approach into the bunker on the 18th, and the streak was alive — Woods has never broken 70 in the first round at the Masters, despite winning four of them.
”I threw away a good round of golf,” Woods said.
Still, it wasn’t hard to find some encouragement. Not many had a good round to throw away.
”You’re not going to go low,” Woods said. ”Low is only 69 today. That’s some pretty good playing.”
Ernie Els opened with a double bogey, then took bogey on the par-five second. He shot 42 on the front nine. US Open champion Geoff Ogilvy was about 50 yards in front of the green on number two when he hit wedge long into a bunker, then hit that shot back toward the fairway, finally pitched up to about eight feet and three-putted for an eight. He also took a double bogey on the par-three 12th, but still managed a 75.
Bidding to become only the fourth repeat winner at the Masters, Mickelson was even par through three holes and, after missing the green on the par-three fourth, chipped to four feet. But he missed that putt, and it spiraled out of control from there. Mickelson shot 40 on the front. Birdies on the 15th and 16th, and scrambling pars on the final two holes put him at 76.
”Even par is going to be in the hunt tomorrow,” he said. ”If I can go out there and shoot a solid 68, I’m in contention.”
He made it sound so simple. The course was anything but that on Thursday, and it doesn’t look to get any easier. Along with a dry forecast, the temperatures are supposed to get much cooler.
And if that’s the case, the course will only get faster.
”The golf course is winning right now,” Billy Mayfair said after a 76. ”I expect it will probably win this week.” – Sapa-AP