AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Welcome to The Day That Wasn't at the Masters.
Thursday was expected to be some sort of great international shootout at Augusta National Golf Club. The course was still soaked from Tuesday night's heavy storms. The greens were still soft and receptive. The wind was down. It was oh-so-obviously going to be an exciting day replete with a buffet of low scores. Perfect scoring conditions were going to turn this Masters opening round, Phil Mickelson predicted Tuesday, into "a birdie-fest."
Not so fast, gentlemen. Augusta National played the role of the cute little Yorkie with a mean bite Thursday. It looked friendly, then lunged for your ankle. A combination of challenging pin positions and a tour player's least favorite hazard-mudballs-contributed to a day of disappointingly modest scoring.
Only nine players shot in the 60s, and only three of those were better than three under par. England's Lee Westwood rode a streak of four straight birdies on the front nine to a five-under 67. South Africa's Louis Oosthuizen, the 2010 British Open champion, and Sweden's Peter Hanson shot 68.
A group of six players at 69 featured Paul Lawrie, Ben Crane, Francesco Molinari, Jason Dufner, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Bubba Watson. Tiger Woods finished bogey-bogey for an even-par 72.
Westwood showed off the solid ballstriking form he's enjoyed all year, hitting every fairway and 16 of 18 greens in regulation. He hit it close on four straight holes for easy birdies, starting at the fifth, then added a last one at the 17th to grab the solo lead late in the day. (For the day, he made seven birdies and two bogeys.) Westwood said he considers Augusta National a second-shot golf course, and iron play is the strength of his game, so he's always felt very comfortable here. In addition, he was playing well coming into the year's first major.
"It's never an easy golf course, this," Westwood said, noting that he got a pre-round text from a caddie pal who warned him the pin positions were tough, "but in rather more flowery language."
"So I knew it would be a day for patience," Westwood said.
With only a few exceptions Thursday, great scoring expectations went unfulfilled. Just how tough were those pin positions, anyway? Thanks for asking.
"Thursday's pins looked like Sunday's pins last year," quipped defending champion Charl Schwartzel.
Said former British Open and PGA champion Padraig Harrington, who shot 71: "There are very few players burning it up. Conditions were very good for scoring in terms of soft greens, no wind. I think they were aware of that and put in some tough pins."
The only player who took it deep Thursday wasn't able to keep it there. Henrik Stenson, your long-lost 2009 Players Championship winner, whose game has been missing-in-action for several years, filled a highlight video with his round. He finished tied for third in the Puerto Rico Open last month, his first top-10 finish on the PGA Tour since the 2010 British Open.
Stenson's round embodied a day in which some of Augusta National's holes could be had, but it was difficult to walk the tightrope for all 18 holes. He eagled the par-5 second hole and the par-5 eighth. He was six under through 10 holes and, after a bogey on 14, chipped in for birdie at the par-5 15th, his second holed chip of the day. He bogeyed the 16th but was still five under on the 18th tee when Augusta National went double-Yorkie on him.
Stenson's tee shot finished in the left trees, his first escape attempt failed, then his third shot from the pine needles came up well short of the green. His approach went long, he left his chip short of the putting surface, then putted four feet past. Could it get any worse? Yes. Stenson lipped out the putt. It added up to a quadruple-bogey 8 and Stenson, despite a pair of terrific eagles, posted a one-under 71 that was anything but mundane.
"Finishing with an 8, I don't think I've ever done that," Stenson said. "After the 11th hole, I didn't hit one fairway off the tee, and that's obviously going to cost you at some point. Even though I didn't expect it to cost as much as it did on 18."
The other hindrance to scoring Thursday were the soft fairways. Many players arrived at their tee shots in the fairway and found mud caked on their golf balls. That mud often causes the ball to dart off in an errant direction; in short, players do not have full control over their next shot. Just about everybody had mudball tales on Thursday, including former Masters champ Tom Watson, 62, who noted that playing partner Hideki Matsuyama hit a shot that veered 40 yards offline because of mud on the ball.
"It happened to me two or three times today," Watson said. "A big old hunk of mud on the ball. It may go left like on No. 1, when mine duck-hooked into the bunker, or on No. 8, it just squirted right. You never know."
All eyes were on Woods, as usual, and though he had an admittedly poor ballstriking day, he blamed the mud for making the day even more challenging.
"The one on No. 7 was a joke," he said. "I cut it, and it hooked about 20 yards. The one on No. 5 was the same thing. It was a draw that ended up slicing and going to the back edge of the green. This course is playing too difficult to go super low on. What Henrik (Stenson) was doing early was pretty impressive."
Woods managed three birdies but said he had a tough day when some of his old swing habits crept back in, which turned into a not-so-subtle dig at his former swing coach, Hank Haney, who wrote a tell-all book about their years together that has infuriated the intensely private Woods.
"I squeezed a lot out of that round," said Woods, who found only six fairways and hit 12 of 18 greens. "I didn't hit it very well at all. I warmed up bad, and it continued on the golf course. I really grinded. Same old motor patterns. Now I'm struggling with all the clubs. I need to go do some work. The Hank backswing was the new downswing."
When Woods finished chatting briefly with reporters, he headed for the range to work on his issues.
Reigning PGA champ Keegan Bradley was introduced to the Masters mudball on the opening hole, when he opened his round with a double bogey. "I had a wicked mudball and I actually hit a good shot, just missed the green and then made a mess of the first," Bradley said. He birdied the second and fourth holes and salvaged a round of 71.
Spain's Jimenez was among the group at 69, and he did it while playing with Woods.
"I'm fine playing with Tiger," Jimenez said. "Sometimes when he hits a shot, the public starts moving and you can hear the roar, but playing with him is fine. I love playing with him."
Asked if he tried to talk Woods into coming to Spain, Jimenez added with a laugh, "All the time, I'm trying to convince him to come play in my tournament."
Some of the game's other big names had trying days.
Luke Donald, the No. 1-ranked player in the world, played less than his best golf and posted a three-over 75. Then his score came into question because the official scoring computers had him down for a 73. Initially, it seemed possible that Donald might be disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard, but it was eventually determined that the erroneous score on the computer was caused by human error. Donald lived to play another day even though he was eight strokes back after the opening day and not thrilled with his start.
"This place can eat you up if you are a little bit off," Donald said. "And I was today, with my iron shots, especially."
Phil Mickelson had three bogeys on the opening nine but fought through to make the turn at only one over. He suffered a triple-bogey seven at the par-4 10th hole when he lost his drive, but he limited the damage with birdies at 15 and 18 to shoot 74.
Former No. 1 Rory McIlroy couldn't make much happen either. He shot 35 on the front nine and matched bogeys on 11 and 13 with birdies at 17 and 18 to shoot 71.