It was a cold start to the Masters in Augusta on Thursday as the chilly morning air caused a few slow starts from even the leading names. Not least the current champion, Sergio Garcia, who arrived at the fifteenth in as much as contention as anyone and then walked off the green 13 strokes later. Seeing three shots trickle into the water to sign for the hole in the same number of shots as Tom Weiskopf in 1980 and Tommy Nakajima in 1978. Reminding all contenders of the small margins at Augusta National and something not visible to TV viewers.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” said Garcia. “It’s the first time in my career where I make a 13 without missing a shot. Simple as that.”
“I felt like I hit a lot of good shots and unfortunately the ball just didn’t want to stop. I don’t know, it’s just one of those things. So, it’s just unfortunate, but that’s what it is.” To the delight of a supportive crowd, Garcia then birdied the next hole but completed his day a despondent champion. Which is the usual story at Augusta for incoming champions. In fact, just three golfers have ever presented themselves with the green jacket: Jack Nicklaus in 1965 and retained the title the following year, when the Golden BEAR won an 18-hole playoff against Tommy Jacobs and Gay Brewer. Then in 1989 Nick Faldo won after a playoff with Scott Hoch, then Faldo needing extra holes the following year to see off Raymond Floyd; Tiger Woods in 2001, when victory over David Duval not only meant he uniquely held all four major titles at the same time, but also went on to win again the following year, beating Retief Goosen.
For Rory McIlroy the television coverage inevitably brings up his adventure at the tenth in 2011, and commentator Butch Harmon revisited that episode again on Thursday on Sky Sports. Although this year though it was a distant memory as the Holywood man shot a first round 69 – for the first time since 2011 -and just his fourth first or second round in the 60’s ever at the Masters. Clearly this places McIlroy as one of this year’s favourites even trailing leader Jordan Spieth by three after Round 1.
“You look at it, and not anyone is really getting away,” said McIlroy. “Jordan had a pretty strong finish there, but this is my best start in a few years. It’s such a hard golf course to play catch up on. If you start to chase it around here, that’s when you start to make mistakes. But to be right up there and have the ability to stay patient because of the position I’m in, that’s a nice luxury I have over the next few days.”
Both golfers having had their nightmare moments at Augusta so now know to avoid getting ahead of themselves.
It felt it was McIlroy’s destiny to become a 21-year-old Masters champion, just like Spieth did four years later. But it wasn’t to be. And as Spieth learned in 2016 the Augusta National course can bear its teeth as the Texan found out on that Sunday’s back nine. Subsequently unravelled his challenge to retain the title. So far this year after day one, only Tony Finau – the man who displaced his ankle in the Par 3 – and ever popular Matt “The Kooch” Kuchar stand between the two boy wonders – Spieth and McIlroy. Throwing up a possible magical pairing going into the weekend if Friday’s round goes according to plan.
“Obviously, it was very benign for us coming in the last few holes,” said McIlroy. “So, yeah, look, I’m not surprised about it at all. [Spieth] loves this golf course. He plays well around here; he always has. And he’s going to be tough to beat this week.”
For Spieth it was a solid day’s work with the continuation of the improving from over recent weeks. Especially with his putting stroke. Which is down to some undisclosed secret that has yet to be revealed. Yet he started slowly but topped the leader board after five consecutive birdies from the 13th to the finish. The ninth time in 17 career rounds at the Masters that Jordan finds himself with at least a share of the lead.
“I’ve kind of found a little trigger in the stroke that has served as beneficial that I tried out last week, and I really think what I did on the weekend last week was hugely beneficial to being able to start strong here,” said Spieth, “A lot of secrets that maybe if it propels to anything special, I’ll write about someday,” he laughed. “But there was a lot of work that went in mentally, physically.”
“To go wire to wire in a tournament is a rare occurrence in any tournament, anywhere,” Spieth continued. “So, I imagine there will be plenty of times, if not from … early on that I don’t lead this tournament anymore. Just things happen in this sport, and I’m going to try and control what I can control, and that’s about it.”
Then there is the Toy Finau story, who after dislocating his ankle in the Par 3 on Wednesday, followed by a dawn breaking MRI on Thursday trails leader Spieth by just two shots. But nothing that a couple of torn ligament will get in the way of Finau’s ambition. At least on day one as the early afternoon tee time allowed him some respite. Then remarkably playing with a heavily taped ankle he signed for a 4-under par 68 and a share of second place on his Masters debut.
“Mind over matter,” Finau said. “I felt like I did a pretty good job of masking the pressure because I had to worry about my foot. … I was able to stay in the moment.”
“Honestly, I’m not really surprised,” Finau continued, “I like the golf course and my foot started to feel better the more I played. And you know, my story’s quite crazy and I’m sure most of you guys knows it by now.
“I feel like my back’s been up against the wall my whole life, so something like this is just another part of the story, I guess. But to sit up here and say I’m surprised? Not really.”
Finau grew up in humble surroundings in Utah, the first PGA TOUR player of Tongan and American Samoan descent. “I look at myself as a pretty mentally tough person, and I think I showed that today in my round — just able to put my head down and just play.”
In contrast and hailing from snowy Sweden is an ever-looming Iceman, Henrik Stenson, who signed for a 69. The Swede has in 40 previous visits to Georgia only broken 70 twice, his best finish being in 2014 T-14. For the leading money winner both sides of the Atlantic the Masters seems a logical fit for such a crisp ball striker. But not yet, although Stenson’s demeanour and language this year reflect that he means business and is trying something different. On Monday of last week, he arrived intending to play 18-holes but the bad weather – “45 and windy” meant he spent the day on the practice putting green. This week he just arrived on Tuesday afternoon, playing only four holes and nine more on the eve of the tournament.
“I haven’t played a full 18-holes before teeing-up,” Stenson explained, “But it has worked out pretty good.”
“I managed my way round the course pretty well today,” he said after Thursday “I hit some nice chips and holed a couple of nice putts on four and eleven. I did make a couple of bad swings -real trauma both off the tee and into the green. But overall, I did a pretty good job. Anytime you shoot in the 60’s on the course you’ve got to be pleased. Shooting that score without playing my best is definitely promising. I just hope I can turn that notch up and see where that takes me on Sunday.”
Stenson’s only major moment came on the par-5 15th hole looking down on the distant green after a near-perfect drive and watching Garcia’s round spun out of control as wedge after wedge after wedge saw him leaking off the putting surface into the water.
“It didn’t really fill me with confidence,” was Stenson’s comment, “There is such a small margin between a really good chance for birdie and a guaranteed bogey on this course. But I’ve learned over the years. I pretty much know where to hit it and what to do on every pin location. It’s just a matter of being able to do it.”
Beware the Iceman cometh.