Fred Couples, Sergio Garcia and Marc Leishman all find themselves at or near the top of the leaderboard after round one at the Masters.
Robert Beck, John W. McDonough / Sports Illustrated; AP
By Michael Bamberger
Friday, April 12, 2013

AUGUSTA, Ga. - Is the name of the winner on the big board in all caps already? Do you like a Spaniard? Take your pick. Sergio Garcia signed for 66. Or maybe you prefer Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano's under-the-radar 68.

The Johnson category is wide open too. Zach went for 69 and Dustin for 67. If you're low Johnson come Sunday, are you the winner?

And then, of course, there was Fred, with his time-capsule 68, making loose swings, talking to his golf ball, playing for keeps. Fred, showing intensity. Something to see. He's 53, with the back of a 63-year-old and the swing of a 33-year-old and an ability to play at Augusta that will not quit.

Can you imagine him slipping into a green coat on Sunday night and justifying beyond a doubt the legitimacy of his Hall-of-Fame induction next month? Dream the dream, people, and damn the reality (that Couples carries a belly putter for a reason).

The first-round leaderboard, on a blowy almost muggy day, was so outrageously interesting you hardly noticed that Tiger Woods (70) or Phil Mickelson (71) or Rory McIlroy (72) were not even on it by day's end. The people selling the game like to say that we are in a golden era of interesting, international, do-it-your-way golf. And they're correct! You want proof? Take me to your leaderboard.

There's Rickie Fowler, with his fast swing and surprisingly patient way. Refusing to be undone by double bogeys at the 1st and 10th holes, he rallied to a wildly entertaining 68, with six birdies and an eagle, at the 15th.

Attention must be paid to the 68 shot by the Englishman David Lynn, who slipped into last year's PGA Championship as the 98th-ranked player in the world, walked out with a second, a check for $865,000 and his first invitation to the Masters.

But if you really want to point to a possible winner from the Day 1 leaderboard, your eye will quite naturally go to ...

No, not Jim Furyk. No disrespect to his 69, but if last year's U.S. Open final round is still a nightmare for us, what do you think it's like for him?

No, not Matt Kuchar. No disrespect to his 68, but you have to wonder if he's too nice to do what you have to do down the stretch to win a tight major, which this one will surely be.

Which brings us to Trevor Immelman, and his 68, who has one green coat in the closet, from his victory in 2008, but hasn't played enough good golf of late to imagine his winning a second blazer this week, and also to Marc Leishman, who matched Sergio with the lowest round of the day, that palindrome 66.

Yes, Leishman is from Australia, and no Australian has won the Masters.

And, yes, he's only won once on the PGA Tour, and it was by way of posting a Sunday 62 last year at Hartford, waiting around for well over two hours and winning from the clubhouse. That was not a win out of the let-the-legend-grow playbook.

But the fact is Leishman did everything right in the first round. He bogeyed the 1st, getting the nerves out of the system. He left his long lag putt for birdie on 18 just under the hole. That's the way you finish the day, kid.

In between, he watched a two-time Masters champion, his playing partner Jose Maria Olazabal, play some beautiful pitches and chips and bunker shots and putts, and he learned from every one of them. You have to be smart to win a Masters. Well, maybe you don't have to be smart. But it helps.

The bogey Olazabal made on the par-3 16th made a strong impression on Leishman. The 1994 and '99 Masters champ hit his tee shot into the right greenside bunker. From that death trap, you can hit it in the water. You can leave it in the bunker. Especially if you're on a downslope, as Olazabal was.

You can make five or worse from that bunker quicker than you can say "pimento cheese sandwich." Ollie made four, about the best score he could make from there. "He landed it about six inches of where he wanted," Leishman said.

The point is not that Olazabal made a good shot. The point is the kid -- Leishman is 29 but playing in only his second Masters -- was watching. Watching and paying attention. "He's got the best short game I think I've ever seen," Leishman said of Olazabal, the winning captain in last September's Ryder Cup. "You can learn a lot from him, so I tried to do that."

Leishman missed the cut in his only other appearance at Augusta National, in 2010. The experience taught him where to miss it. On the 1st tee, he felt the opening-drive butterflies. You'd have to be dead if you didn't have them. His arms, he said, "felt light." When his arms feel light on Sunday, if he's still hanging around, he'll know how to compensate for it. Or know better, anyhow.

Why has no Australian won the Masters? Who knows. It's not for lack of desire. Leishman, no doubt speaking for innumerable junior golfers in Australia, said that when he was practicing as a kid, "you always had a putt to win the Masters."

Greg Norman, the Shark, could make the putts he needed to make to win the British Open (twice), but he couldn't make the ones he needed to make to win the major he wanted most.

Between now and dusk on Sunday, we'll find out if Leishman can. And if he can't, Garcia or Johnson or Lynn or Fowler of Gonzo or Immelman or Fred or Kooch or Furyk can.

Isn't that how the perfect cheer goes? Party on, you golfing gods. This is already getting good.

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