AUGUSTA, Ga. — Yes, this is what the Masters folks covet – a wacky, wild, action-packed opening day at Augusta National Golf Club.
Old or young, long hitter or short hitter, experienced Masters veteran or first-timer, Thursday’s leaderboard had a bit of everything enough to keep even the casual golf fan in tune.
Australia’s Marc Leishman and Spain’s Sergio Garcia, two golfers with very little track record at this major championship, share the overnight lead at the 77th Masters at 6-under-par 66.
Alone one stroke back is big-hitting Dustin Johnson, who made a late bogey en route to a 67.
Six golfers, including former Masters champions Fred Couples (1992), a Seattle native, and South Africa’s Trevor Immelman (2008), trail by two shots at 68.
Four-time Masters champion Tiger Woods cooled after a hot start and finished at 70. Part of the afternoon wave, Phil Mickelson was 2-over par early but managed to post a 71 – as did Puyallup’s Ryan Moore. Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy finished at 72.
And 14-year-old Tianlang Guan of China displayed uncommon poise in his first round as the youngest participant in Masters history. He shot 1-over 73.
As far as the pair at the top, one question begged to be answered – did he or didn’t he mean it?
After a 75 in last year’s third round of the Masters, Garcia told the Spanish-speaking press corps that “I’m not good enough” to win a professional major championship.
Part of that stemmed from his frustration with Augusta. He has said he does not care for the course – and his career scoring average of 73.1 certainly reflects that. In 14 previous Masters appearances, he has finished under par just three times – with a career-best tie for fourth in 2004.
Naturally, the first post-round question was: “Thought you hated it here?”
“Sometimes it (the round of golf) comes out better than others,” Garcia said. “Today, it was one of those good days. And you know, let’s enjoy it while it lasts.”
And last year’s comments about not being good enough to win a major, including the Masters?
“Those were my words,” Garcia said. “At the end of the day, we go through moments – tough moments and frustrated moments – and I know it was one of them.
“Maybe I didn’t say it the right way. … Like I said before, every time I tee off, I try to play as well as I can, hope that my best that week is really, really good, and if I manage to do that, I will have a chance at winning.”
Leishman has long been considered one of the more talented Australian golfers of this era, but has posted underwhelming results. He missed the cut in 2010 in his only previous Masters appearance.
In fact, that has sort of been the theme for his countrymen at the Masters. No Aussie has ever won the title but plenty have suffered a great deal of heartbreak – including Greg Norman’s historic six-shot, final-round meltdown in 1996 that handed Nick Faldo the victory, and Adam Scott losing a late Sunday lead in 2011, eventually falling to Charl Schwartzel.
“It would be huge, obviously (to win) … but there’s a lot of golf left, and a lot of hurdles to clear,” Leishman said. “But you know, if I keep playing the way I’m playing – keep holing crucial par putts and just putting the way I have been – there’s no reason why not.”
A few high-profile players, notably Woods and Mickelson, were a bit dumbfounded by the pace of Augusta National’s greens Thursday. They were much slower than usual.
“They just didn’t have the sheen to them,” Woods said. “They didn’t have the roll-out.”
Mickelson was much more pointed in his remarks.
“I don’t get it. They’re soft and they are slow,” Mickelson said. “And consequently, we have 45 people at par or better. But that means that I’ve got to change my whole mindset and just get after these pins because the ball is not running like it used to, and I’m giving this course way too much respect.”