AUGUSTA, Ga. – Even before the champions began, it was obvious that Augusta National in April was not something like it was in November. Far less clear was which course Justin Rose played Thursday.
Rose made seven birdies and an eagle during an awful 10-hole stretch for a 7-under-65 and a four-shot lead, his lowest score at Augusta National in one of his toughest opening rounds.
It started with a nice jump from high to the left of the green on par-5 eighth that put a 10 foot eagle up. Only two of his birdie putts were outside 8 feet. He punched a 12-foot par putt on the one green he missed. Not bad for a 40-year-old from England playing for the first time in a month while resting an ailing back.
His 65 looked even better in one day, so hard only 1
“Listen, I did not know where my game was going into this week,” Rose said. “I’ve worked hard. I could have played the last two tournaments, but I was really trying to prepare hard for this Masters.”
Twice a second-place finish, including a playoff loss to Sergio Garcia four years ago, set Rose a Masters record by taking at least a share of the lead in the first round for the fourth time. The other to do so was Jack Nicklaus. The difference? Nicklaus then won two of his six green jackets from that position.
Rose likes to say that he has only had one arm in his jacket.
Brian Harman, the last player to enter the 88-man field, and Hideki Matsuyama were finishing their rounds at 69 around the time Rose began a course that was dry and crusty, on greens that were so fast, there were spots of brown.
Among those at 70 were former Masters champion Patrick Reed and Masters newcomer Will Zalatoris. Jordan Spieth overcame a triple bogey from the trees at No. 9 to a 71.
There were a lot of red numbers missing on the leaderboard under conditions that were so difficult that Garcia after a 76 said, “I feel like I just got out of the ring with Evander Holyfield.”
Five months ago, at the first championships held in November due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the lawn was so soft that 53 players were below par after the opening round.
British Open champion Shane Lowry flipped from the back of the 15th green into the water in front of the green. He escaped with a bogey and managed a 71st American amateur champion Tyler Strafaci hit a 60-foot putt behind the ninth green that slung 75 yards away on the other side.
Defending champion Dustin Johnson, who set the record last year at 20-under 268, failed to break par for the first time since the opening round in 2018. He three-putt for double bogey on the 18th for a 74.
“I feel sorry for the boys’ first champions in November, and then they go out there today and wonder what the hell is going on,” Kevin Kisner said after a hard-earned 72.
This was no surprise. Augusta National has not had rain in more than a week and players could not remember the last time greens were so fast during practice rounds, much less with a scorecard in hand on Thursday.
“It’s my 10th year, but I’ve never seen the greens so firm and fast,” Matsuyama said. “So it was like a new course for me playing today and I was lucky to get it well around.”
And what should I say about Rose? Even under more forgiving conditions, he had never done better than 67.
“I did not feel that today was the day for a 65, to be honest,” Rose said.
No one needed convincing, least of all Bryson DeChambeau and Rory McIlroy, among top players who struggled with the wind and had just as many problems when the ball was on the ground.
DeChambeau, the US Open champion who has licked his chops to bring his superstar game to Augusta National, did not make a birdie until the 15th hole and shot 76, his highest score as a pro at the Masters. Patrick Cantlay hit in the water on both par 3s on the back nine and shot 79.
“The guys want to shoot themselves out of the golf tournament on the first day,” Webb Simpson said after a late double bogey forced him to settle for a 70.
McIlroy, who needs a green jacket to complete his Grand Slam career, hit his father with a shot on the seventh hole. It was about the most interesting moment of his round at 76. Lee Westwood, who had a few second places in the Florida Swing, had a 78.
Rose looked like he might be heading that way. He made a soft bogey at No. 1. He rolled over the green at No. 7. He was 2 over, but not ready to panic. He knew it was hard. He also knew he was heading in the wrong direction.
“You can not win the golf tournament today. Even with a 65, you can not win it today,” Rose said. “You can probably only lose it today, obviously. I reset just before that and thought that if I could get myself back on equal footing, it would be a good day’s work.”
He struck a 5-tree at 10 feet for eagle and a 9-iron for the dangerous left pin at No. 9 to 4 feet for bird. He punched a 25-foot putt on the 10th and hit an 8-iron to 6-foot on No. 12. It never stopped. Even from the first cut of the rough on the 17th, his wedge hit itself 4 feet from the hole.
He ended by going through the details of the incredible stretch, smiling and saying, “That sounds easy.”
It looked like this. But only for him.