Defending champion Tiger Woods shoots 4-under 68 to trail by 3 shots and look a lot like a guy who has won 5 green jackets
This never was going to be a normal Masters. Not in the midst of a pandemic. Not in November. Not with only a handful of spectators and no roars cascading through the cathedral of pines.
In such uncharted territory, Thursday’s opening round figured to spring more surprises than Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates. It did, but still, no one was quite prepared for a Masters this shocking (scores).
Believe it or not …
* Tiger Woods rose from the dead or wherever he’s been for the past eight months, put his defending-champion self into a tie for fifth place with a bogey-free 68 and looked rejuvenated. “I drove it well, hit my irons well, putted well,” Woods said. “I did everything well.” Woods is doing everything well? Uh-oh.
* Augusta National looked strangely like one of those birdie-fests on the Korn Ferry Tour instead of the major-championship, heart-breaking beast it usually is. Heavy rain and storms that delayed play for 2 hours and 45 minutes just after Thursday's start led to receptive greens, slower-than-normal putting surfaces and birdies and eagles galore. Yes, that’s the first time the word slower has been used in a sentence about these greens. “This might be the softest we see the greens at Augusta National, ever,” Augusta native Charles Howell III said after shooting a 1-under 71.
* Bryson DeChambeau did not drive every green, did not turn the course into the Bobby Jones Memorial Pitch & Putt as so many had expected and did not cause golf’s governing bodies to hold an emergency session to rewrite the rulebook to prevent future 400-yard drives. Instead, DeChambeau struggled with his 45-inch driver, found trouble in the trees and the azaleas but gamely rallied to shoot 70 after an early double bogey. “Not my best,” he said of his errant tee shots.
* Larry Mize led the Masters on Thursday, for a short while. That wouldn’t have been out of place in 1987, the year when he chipped in to beat Greg Norman in a playoff, but he’s 62 years old 33 years later and hadn’t broken par in the Masters since 2009. Mize, who made six birdies, reached 3 under par early and saw his name atop the leaderboard. “Wow, that’s kind of cool,” the Augusta native said after signing for a 70. “I’m sorry I couldn’t keep it there.”
The player who would have sent the most sizzling electricity through the gallery, had there been one, was Woods. He didn’t play much in 2020 and when he did, he looked like an old Tiger, not the Tiger of old. He did not make it to the final stage of the FedEx Cup series. His last seven PGA Tour finishes read like the jersey numbers of the Jacksonville Jaguars’ defense: 68, 40, 37, 58, 51 and 72. He also had a missed cut, at the U.S. Open.
Woods is the defending champion, but the last Masters was 19 months ago. Few could’ve expected Woods, who will turn 45 next month, to look so sharp, so suddenly. The only bad shot he hit, he said, was a sand wedge into No. 8 that finished on the wrong shelf. “The only thing I could say is that I wish I could have made a couple more putts,” said Woods, who was three shots behind Casey and one behind Webb Simpson and Xander Schauffele, who were tied for second at 67. Justin Thomas also stood 5 under but had played only 10 holes before darkness suspended play.
Woods teed off on the back nine and made birdies at the par-5 13th (on in two, two-putted from long range); the par-5 15th (just off the green in two and chipped close); and the par-3 16th (his shot to a front pin placement stopped inches behind the hole).
“I got off to a fast start today, which is good, but I think everyone is,” Woods said. “Everyone is going low. With these conditions, you have to.”
Blame the soft greens for the low scorers. Woods hit a 4-iron from 227 yards on the fifth hole and was pleasantly surprised when the ball landed on the back edge of the green and rolled out only a foot. “That doesn’t happen here,” he said.
At the seventh hole, he landed a wedge approach past the pin and was chagrined to see it zip back down near the front of the green. “You have to watch the spin,” Woods said. “That’s not normally the case; you’re usually trying to find spin around here.”
Just how low were the scores? With 44 players still on the course when play was called for darkness at 5:30 p.m., even par was good for 51st place. Under new rules just announced last week, the Masters will cut to the low 50 players and ties after 36 holes. So even par, usually a decent score at Augusta National, looked like certain nameless Hollywood celebs without makeup: not so good.
Soft, slow greens and low scores? This really is a tradition unlike any other.
The round of the day was a superb 65 by England’s Paul Casey, who finished runner-up at the PGA Championship in August. Casey, who started on No. 10 and shot 32 on the back nine, eagled the par-5 second hole thanks to an iron shot that landed pin-high near the back-left pin. “That’s a shot you can’t hit in April,” Casey said. “It would one-hop into the patrons.”
Thursday, it stopped dead, and he holed the eagle putt. He had five birdies and an eagle, with no bogeys. “I miss the fans,” he said. “There is this vibe that Augusta National has, this intangible you can’t measure that adds excitement to playing this golf course. It’s still exciting to be here. I put in a lot of hard work in a short amount of time, and it paid off.”
There were some hot rounds in progress Thursday, in addition to Thomas’ 5-under score, when play stopped. U.S. Open runner-up Matthew Wolff was 4 under through 11 holes, 2013 Masters champion Adam Scott stood 4 under through 10 and Dylan Frittelli was 4 under through nine. Dustin Johnson, the No. 1-ranked player in the world, was 3 under on his opening nine.
DeChambeau has gotten more headlines than any golfer in 2020 with his muscled-up, bulked-up shape and his new-found massive distance off the tee. He used it to win the U.S. Open in September and make vaunted Winged Foot look small. He was the wagering favorite coming into the Masters but didn’t have a great track record at Augusta National: a career-best T-21 in three appearances.
He started on the back nine and had a misadventure on the 13th hole when he overshot the green into the azaleas on the hillside. It took a harried search to find the ball, and DeChambeau then failed to get on the green. It turned into a double bogey. He salvaged a 2-under round with a birdie-birdie finish and was satisfied with his patience under those conditions.
“I got a little tight. I wasn’t comfortable with my swing,” he said. “Normally when I’m really comfortable, I can keep going faster and faster, and today, I felt like I got a little tighter. I just have to figure out what’s going on, why I am missing it a little too far left.”
Jon Rahm was paired with DeChambeau and was wowed by the distance difference when Rahm hit what he thought was a good drive and DeChambeau hit one on the toe of the club. “He was still way ahead of me,” Rahm said. “A couple of them were reality checks.”
At the 15th, Louis Oosthuizen and DeChambeau each hit a 7 to the green. “But Louis hit a 7-wood and Bryson hit a 7-iron,” Rahm said.
DeChambeau’s hitting it past opponents was no surprise, but there were some other things out of the ordinary in the opening round. Woods said he and caddie Joe LaCava often had to ask the nearest cameraman how a shot turned out because they couldn’t see it. Normally, the crowd’s roars would answer that question for them.
And then there was the oddity of Woods starting his round on the 10th hole, and being on the adjacent putting green when Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player were being introduced on the first tee for the ceremonial tee shots.
“We couldn’t hear it because there was a drone flying over the putting green,” Woods said. “Down the first fairway, you could hear the drone over there. You don’t hear drones here. That’s very different. There were a lot of firsts today.”
This was not a day for normal. You can say the same for all of 2020.
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