In an opening day at the Masters that was laced with shocks and surprises, the sun set on a gusty day at Augusta with America’s Charley Hoffman leading the field by four shots and world No.1 Dustin Johnson heading home before he’d even managed to get to the first tee.
In a swirling wind that left most players celebrating pars, Hoffman bagged no fewer than seven birdies over his last 11 holes for a 7-under 65 that gave him a four-shot advantage over Masters debutant William McGirt – the largest first round lead since 1955.
In gusts that approached 40mph, Hoffman and McGirt were the only players to break 70, while only 11 players ended the day in red figures. Lee Westwood, so often the bridesmaid in his major career, defied the odds with five birdies on the spin on the back nine to salvage a 70, that moved him into third place, while a group of eight players at one under par includes
Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia and three Englishmen in Justin Rose, Andy Sullivan and Matt Fitzpatrick. The latter was looking a likely first round leader until undone by a double bogey at the last, and Hoffman’s hot streak.
Rory McIlroy, needing only a green jacket to complete a career Grand Slam, relied on his short game to stay in the mix. After going out in a scrappy 39, he saved pars at 10 and 11 with magical chips after missing the green in the wrong places, and then ran off three birdies in the middle of the back nine, and closed with another good par save for a battling 72. It was a ring rusty round from the world no.2, but there are signs that better is to come.
Johnson, the man above McIlroy in the rankings never got a chance to see how he would have fared in the testing conditions. He suffered an injury to his back after slipping down the stairs at his rented house, and despite intense phsyio, and a long work-out on the range, decided to take the long view on his season and pulled out of the tournament just minutes before he was due on the first tee. It robbed the Masters of the world’s hottest player, who was bidding for his fourth straight win.
Out on the course, the conditions took some early scalps. Hampshire’s Scott Gregory, winner of last year’s Amateur Championship, ran up a triple-bogey seven on his opening hole and walked off the 18th green having taken 82 shots. Jordan Speith, bidding to erase the memory of his meltdown at the par-3 12th last year, got past that hurdle unscathed, but then suffered a similar fate at the par-5 15th, where he twice dumped his ball in the water – one short, one long – en route to racking up for quadruple bogey nine. It was to his credit that he birdied the 16th, and finished the round just three shots over par.
Defending champion Danny Willett, currently enduring a horrible slump in form, looked to be continuing that run when he opened up with two sixes, but the Yorkshireman showed why he earned his jacket last year by making a birdie at the third, another at the 10th, and an eagle at the 13th en route to a 73 and a share of 19th.
Fellow Ryder Cup player Thomas Pieters set the course alight early on Thursday morning, with the big-hitting Belgian racing to five-under par by the 10th hole. Sadly, a double bogey at the 12th, and then another at the 18th brought him back down to earth for a level-par 72.
“If you catch the wrong gust at the wrong time, then you look stupid, like I did on 12. But that’s just Augusta, I guess,” was how he summed it up.
However, it’s Hoffman that is currently leading the field a merry dance. Level par after seven holes, he birdied 8 and 9 to turn in 34, then birdied 12, 14, 15, 16 and 17 to come back in 31 strokes. His 65 included twos at all four par threes.
“I step on this property and it just feels special,” Hoffman said after his round. Special indeed.