AUGUSTA, Ga. – Remember those soft, low-scoring days at the Masters Tournament? Well, the kid gloves are off once again.
For days, competitors filed into Augusta National expecting a fight. Early reports from the grounds were that the iconic Alister Mackenzie layout was firm and fast. Even the tournament chairman, Fred Ridley, warned competitors, saying it’s been nearly a decade since the course, particularly the greens, packed this much punch this early in the week.
Forget firm and fast. Thursday’s opening round was more like fiery and merciless.
“I feel sorry for the guys who played their first Masters in November,” said Kevin Kisner, referencing the one-off fall edition last year in which winner Dustin Johnson bludgeoned the uber-receptive course to the tune of 20 under. “They're walking out there today wondering what the hell is going on.”
Added Sergio Garcia: "I feel like I just came out of the ring with Evander Holyfield, like a 12-round match."
Sure, Justin Rose appeared to have fired his 7-under 65 at PGA West, not a hard-hitting Augusta National that played to a first-round scoring average of 74.52, more than three shots higher than the record-low 71.41 mark in November. But at the same time, there was a reason the English vet had a four-shot cushion leaving Magnolia Lane on Thursday evening. A few months after 53 players ended Day 1 at Augusta National in red numbers, just a dozen will enter Friday under par, and 77 still has a player in decent shape to make the cut.
“It was a battle, that's all I can say,” said Jon Rahm, who like Kisner shot even par. “There was not one moment where you felt relaxed. … Nobody has seen it like this in a long time.”
Balls weren't landing and sticking, and wedges were bouncing over greens.
The greens looked like glass, with putts struggling to come to res – one even rolled into the water (see: Wiesberger, Bernd).
Par 5s were playing more like par 5s.
Targets missed by inches were turning into targets missed by miles.
Case in point: At the fifth hole, Viktor Hovland got a little greedy but thought he had cut a 4-iron perfectly into the green. His ball landed almost exactly where he was looking and was expecting it to stop near the hole for a stress-free birdie.
“It didn't and went all the way down over the green,” said Hovland, whose head was already starting to spin from an opening triple bogey. “Made a great up-and-down, but it's like, it's not very far off from making a nice birdie there and then you're staring bogey in the eye.”
Something similar happened to Webb Simpson at No. 14. Most weeks on Tour, his 9-iron would have hit the putting surface pin-high and stopped. But not this week, as Simpson’s aggressive shot landed with a loud thud and then rocketed over the back with some 15 yards of bounce.
“I haven't had this feeling in a while, but I had a 9-iron in the middle of the fairway, and I did not think I could hit the green,” Simpson said. “Straight downwind, and you obviously can't land it short there, and I landed it 2 yards short of the hole and, sure enough, it went over the green.”
Somehow Hovland battled back for a 1-over 73, and Simpson delivered an impressive 70. Other big names weren’t so lucky. Rory McIlroy shot 76 with his lowlight coming at the seventh, where he hit his father, Gerry, on the fly with a wayward approach from the rough. Bryson DeChambeau got his calculations mixed up, making just one birdie and carding 76, and again struggled to bomb Augusta National into submission. Patrick Cantlay was a popular pick to earn his first major this week, but he narrowly avoided 80 and his 79 has him ahead of just five players, a couple of amateurs and a pair of 60-somethings.
The players in the latter groups had it especially tough. Winds were inconsistent but relatively manageable for much of the day, but at some point, late in the afternoon, someone clocked out early and left the fan on. Of the 18 players teeing off after 1 p.m., just Tyrrell Hatton and Jordan Spieth shot under par, each with 71.
“Started off as a nice casual stroll around Augusta and turned into a roller coaster pretty quickly there on the back,” said Kisner, who had at least some reprieve; he teed off at 9:24 a.m.
Paul Casey, who was toward the middle of the tee sheet, related to that roller-coaster bit. He turned in 3 under before making five bogeys on the back nine.
“In terms of roller coaster, I'd be disappointed because it didn't have too many corkscrews, it was just up and down,” Casey said. “It was up, and then it was down. It was a rubbish roller coaster, really. You wouldn't pay for it.”
For those who generally are turned off by dartboard golf, they’d probably shell out the big bucks for this type of test to continue the rest of the tournament. The players who have control of their golf balls and play to the correct angles and below the hole, just like Mackenzie and Bobby Jones intended, will have a chance come Sunday. The ones who don’t will be trunk-slamming or teeing off just after breakfast on the final day.
But most of the field is still in this thing. Johnson’s defense didn’t get off to as great a start as it initially appeared. The world No. 1 doubled the last and played his final three holes in 3 over to shoot 74, but that’s just six shots out of second place. Heck, even Cantlay is within 10 shots of second.
Anything can happen, and with the course playing like this, it probably will.
“It's brilliantly set up,” Casey added. “There's every aspect of that golf course which is difficult and will test your game. There's no one particular bit that's more difficult than the other, it's just difficult, and a little bit of swirling wind, firm greens, exposes anybody who's not on top of their game. Any weakness you have in your game, it will find it.
“It doesn't scare me – it's kind of what I enjoy – but I think the guys who have played the last few years and the younger guys have just not seen Augusta National in full flow, and this is right in the sweet spot.”
Thunderstorms are expected beginning late Saturday afternoon, but how much can this course soften up? Likely not much.
“I don't think grass is going to grow on 9 just overnight,” Brooks Koepka quipped.
That’s music to the ears of most patrons – and even some players. Patrick Reed, after his opening 70, wouldn’t mind a little sprinkle, but “we don’t want this place getting soft.”
Said Shane Lowry (71): “Oh, my God, I've never seen it like that, which was great. I loved it. I've always wanted to play Augusta like this in the Masters.”
Of course, no one loved the fight quite like Rose, who ducked and dodged pretty much everything the course threw his way.
“The conditions today were not the day to go hit them and have your personal best out there,” said Rose, who somewhat shockingly, did just that, beating his career low at the Masters by two strokes.
You can bet Augusta National paid attention. With the way it treated most of the field Thursday, when it comes to Rose, it’s likely not going to be pulling many more punches.