Justin Rose shoots an extraordinary 65 on a day when only 11 others broke par, opening a 4-stroke lead on a firm and fast track
Payback is a you-know-what, and Thursday at the Masters was the day when atonement was delivered.
At Augusta National, it’s atonement, not revenge, just as it’s organic matter, not mud, and a throng, not a mob.
Dustin Johnson obliterated the Masters scoring record last November with his 20-under-par winning score. What did you think was going to happen in April after the storied old course – just The National to insiders – got a pair of black eyes and a sore spleen courtesy of Johnson?
Even worse, Cameron Smith became the first player in the tournament’s glorious history to post four rounds in the 60s. Not Ben Hogan, not Sam Snead, not Jack Nicklaus, not even Tiger Woods.
Thursday, The Empire struck back. The greens were unusually firm, and the putting surfaces were unusually fast, and they had been that way since Monday’s practice rounds. The players knew all week what was coming: an old-fashioned, kick-’em-in-the-shins-style U.S. Open disguised as a Masters in which bogeys are the new pars and in which four pars in a row constituted a – yeah! – charge up the leaderboard.
It was no Massacre at Winged Foot, but after November’s red-numbered monsoon, it felt about the same.
The only player who walked off the grounds unscathed was former U.S. Open champion Justin Rose, whose 7-under 65 felt more like a 60 thanks to the level of suffering around him. Most everyone else fell into the “scathed” category, making Rose’s hot, eight-birdie run that much more impressive (scores).
Norway’s Viktor Hovland tripled the opening hole. Jordan Spieth tripled the ninth after playing whack-a-pine right of the fairway. Bryson DeChambeau doubled the par-3 fifth and spent most of the day shouting, “Noooo!” as his errant drives flared into the trees. He posted a 76. Dustin Johnson shot 74 and didn’t resemble the No. 1 player in the world when he fanned a drive into the right trees at 18 en route to a double bogey after his 3-foot putt for bogey made a Bat-turn out of the cup.
And there was struggling Rory McIlroy, whose year was encapsulated by a moment at the seventh hole when his errant second shot struck a spectator on the back of the leg. It was his dad, Gerry. When you hit a family member, you’re officially in a slump.
The course setup, and Rose, were the stories of the day. Perhaps The National positioned itself as baked hard and fast – but with heavily watered fairways to prevent roll, one way to fight how far the balls goes – as a way to offset expected late-week rains. Or, as many suspect, it was all about putting the fear and loathing back into Amen Corner after November’s birdie-fest. The aforementioned Massacre at Winged Foot came the year after Johnny Miller posted the unthinkable 63 at Oakmont back in the days when par was sacred. Nobody in golf believed that was a coincidence.
The telltale sign was the color of the greens. Many of them were almost brown in color from being shaved so short. The Masters committee is all about visuals and likes to present a veritable DisneyLand of Golf for television viewers. The closeups on the putting surfaces showed that they mean business this week.
“Maybe you see them this firm late Sunday afternoon, but I’ve never seen them on a Monday that firm,” three-time major-winner Brooks Koepka said after shooting 74. “Monday, it looked like it normally does on later Saturday afternoon or Sunday. There’s not much grass on a couple of those greens. There’s no grass on the back of No. 6 green, and on 9, I don’t know. Rain will help, but grass isn’t going to grow on 9 overnight.”
Former Players champion Si Woo Kim of South Korea got it to 3 under par during the round but posted a 1-under 71. “Everything’s like pretty OK, and then I hit it good,” he said. “I just escaped not losing my mind.”
Former Masters champion Sergio Garcia agreed that the course played difficult, not only with the firm greens but because of gusting breezes in the afternoon. Garcia shot 76.
“I didn’t drive the ball very well, and every time I was in the trees, I had pretty much no shot,” he said. “I fought hard, but I feel like I just came out of the ring with Evander Holyfield after a 12-round match. I need to go home and rest.”
Rose, meanwhile, a popular Englishman, found himself in a familiar spot. This marked the fourth time he led the Masters after 18 holes.
What was different about this one, however, was the way in which he lapped the field. His 65, the best score he’s ever posted at Augusta National, was four strokes better than the next best scores: 69s by Brian Harman and Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama. That’s a scoring gap that seldom happens in a major championship’s opening round. And this was unexpected, maybe even by Rose himself, because he withdrew from the Arnold Palmer Invitational after two rounds with back spasms and took the past month off.
“I didn’t know where my game was coming in this week,” Rose conceded. “I’ve been working hard to prepare for this Masters. My coach said, ‘I don’t know if your game is close; I just know it’s better.’ Experience kicked in, because I knew it was a tough day.”
His round was remarkable because Rose bogeyed the opening hole, made five straight pars and then bogeyed the seventh to slip to 2 over. Then he went eagle-birdie-birdie starting at the eighth, and added a birdie-birdie-birdie run starting at the 15th. Rose played the last 11 holes in 9 under par.
There were plenty of highlights in that stretch but none better than his second shot at the uphill par-5 eighth, where he hit a hard 5-wood that caromed off the left mound guarding the green and shot directly toward the cup. He was left with an uphill eagle putt of 10 feet, and he made it.
At 12, he landed his approach shot just over the bunker and stopped it within 5 feet for a birdie. At 16, he played a savvy shot to the right center of the green, let his ball kick off the slope and run down to eight feet below the hole for birdie. At 17, he stuck a wedge shot to 2 feet.
Rose was the only player on the course making things look easy. In 2017, he played well all week and lost a playoff with Sergio Garcia. His good start was only a surprise because of the layoff. He’s got history at the Masters.
“I’ve had great experiences here and bad experiences and heartaches here,” said Rose, who is 40. “I played a good round of golf on Sunday in 2017 with Sergio. I haven’t gotten an arm into the [green] jacket yet; there’s a long way to go. I’m just going to try to keep enjoying this place.”
Rose was in the minority of those who had fun. For instance, the entire field combined to make a total of six birdies on the first, fourth and fifth holes. In other words, the same number of birdies as Rose made on the back nine on the way to a 30.
The field was a combined 220 over par on Thursday, compared with 54 under par in the first round in November.
Spieth, the 2015 Masters champ who ended a 3½-year victory drought last week at the Valero Texas Open, arrived in Georgia with momentum and a role as one of the pre-tournament favorites. He managed a few smiles on the back nine after his ninth-hole disaster. He answered with a 20-foot birdie putt at the 10th and an eagle at the 15th that was, well, fortunate.
Spieth was just over the green in two and chipping downhill on one of The National’s slickest greens. Spieth didn’t get the spin he intended on his chip shot and watched his ball motoring with more than enough speed to reach the front part of the green, from where it would clearly zoom right into the pond. Instead, the ball hit the pin and dropped for an unlikely eagle. Spieth took off his cap and smiled in relief, as if his number had just been pulled in a lottery, then he grinned and put his cap back on at a crooked angle. He knew he got a good break, maybe even a great break, and he took advantage of the turnaround to shoot 1-under 71.
There was this statistic lurking among the volumes of Masters lore: No player has posted a 7 on a hole and gone on to win a Masters in nearly 40 years. The last to do it was Craig Stadler, in 1982.
That bit of trivial pursuit is not a good omen for Spieth. However, Spieth hit 16 of 18 greens in regulation lead the Masters field in that category, a very positive sign.
After a rugged Thursday in which Rose proved that anything is possible, it was something to think about.
Morning Read's Day 1 Coverage from the 2021 Masters:
Augusta National wins Round 1, by Gary Van Sickle
Don't crown Justin Rose just yet, by Alex Miceli
Rory shoots 76, drills father with errant shot, by Steve Harmon
CBS, ESPN play to each other's strengths, by John Hawkins
Round 1 Recap in Pictures
Round 2 Tee Times
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