Mesmerizing opening round had something for everyone

Fred Couples, 50, shot his lowest round ever at the Masters on Thursday.
John Biever/SI

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- After a months-long scandal that exposed the game's most visible star, day one of the Masters featured an embarrassment of riches and a gift for every preference.

Whether you were young or old, foreign or domestic, a fan of timely scrambling or numbing consistency, wild comebacks or awful wrecks, Thursday at Augusta National was a treasure.

"Well, no," Lee Westwood said when asked if ever expected to find himself rivals with Tom Watson, setting off laughter.

Both shot 67 to get into a five-way tie at five-under, one behind leader Fred Couples. This, nine months after Watson and "Westy" each fell agonizingly short of winning the British Open.

"And, yes," Westwood continued. "I was lucky enough to partner [with Watson] in the Dubai Desert Classic par-3 tournament earlier on in the year, and just getting that close to him and seeing how well he swings the club and how well he strikes the ball; he's always going to have class. So it's no surprise, really."

Couples (three wins and a second in four starts in his first season on the Champions Tour) and Watson (one win) have dominated the 50-and-over set. Now we see why.

They led the field on Thursday with 24 putts apiece. The 60-year-old Watson was the only player in the 96-player field without a bogey. Couples, 50, made seven birdies, tied with Westwood for the most of the day. The ball doesn't know how old you are.

"Yeah, he was one of my picks this week — Lee and Freddy," Watson said. "I picked Freddy."

Couples, the '92 Masters champion, birdied four of his final seven holes, going low in his golf sneakers as if he were still performing for AARP sunbirds on the Champions circuit.

"I'm not surprised, but I'm thrilled," he said. "I thought I could come here and play well because I have been playing well."

Korea's Y.E. Yang, validating his takedown of Tiger Woods at the PGA last August, fired a back-nine 32 for his own 67. K.J. Choi, playing with Woods, birdied four straight to match Yang and upstage Woods by one.

Westwood, playing for Great Britian, which hasn't had a Masters champion since Nick Faldo in 1996, hit all 18 greens in regulation.

"Around here I don't think people often do that," Westwood said of what he called "by far" his best round at Augusta.

Anthony Kim (68) hit eight of 14 fairways. He won last week in Houston while hitting 23 fairways over 72 holes, last in that category among those who made the cut. "I found my identity," he said. "I'm an aggressive player." Well, yes, there's that. He's also Seve Ballesteros with a bigger belt buckle.

You want human-interest stories? Phil Mickelson, whose wife, Amy, and mother, Mary, have been battling breast cancer, and whose game has shown the strain, shot a 32 coming home for a 67.

Watson, a.k.a. Turn-Back-the-Clock Tom, a.k.a. the Kansas City Codger, gifted a mulligan to the legion of fans still melancholy over last summer's British Open. In his 119th career round at Augusta, with his son, Michael, on the bag, the two-time Masters champion matched his career low at Augusta.

Couples beat his career best by a shot.

Anticipating an afternoon thunderstorm, tournament officials adjusted tees and pin placements accordingly, but the foul weather never hit, and players took advantage.

"I think that's as easy as you're going to see Augusta," Jerry Kelly said after shooting an even-par 72, "which is still not easy."

Matteo Manassero of Italy, at 16 the youngest starter in Masters history, shot 71 and was five off the lead. He befriended the grandfatherly Watson (the oldest player in the field) at Turnberry and Dubai, and the odd couple played a practice round together at Augusta on Monday.

"He gave me great advice," said Manassero, who endeared himself to the world's press Tuesday by cheerfully declining a translator and revealing he'd been studying Augusta on TV since Greg Norman's heartbreaking loss in 1996. Manassero was 3.

The contrast of youth and experience went beyond Watson and Manassero. There was 52-year-old Sandy Lyle's 69 and 28-year-old Nick Watney's 68; 52-year-old Bernhard Langer's 71 and 27-year-old Francesco Molinari's 70.

Redemption stories? Thursday had those, too.

There were two very different ones that ran into each other on the tee of the 240-yard, par-3 4th hole. That was where slow play conspired to reunite former No. 1 David Duval, playing in the last group, with Woods, playing in the second-to-last group.

Woods, who received warm applause on the 1st tee and tipped his cap to the crowd after finding the fairway, eagled the 8th hole, wrapped his second around a stand of trees for one of the most improbable birdies you'll see on 9, eagled 15 and shot 68.

Duval, back at Augusta after a long and horrible slump by virtue of his runner-up finish at last year's U.S. Open, got off to a good start but shot a back-nine 41 and signed for a 76.

At least he had company.

Martin Kaymer of Germany, a pre-tournament favorite, shot 76. Jim Furyk, two-under through three holes, made three double-bogeys and a triple on the back nine and shot 80.

Paul Casey was three-under through 14, then finished triple-bogey, bogey, par, double-bogey for 75. Ernie Els, bogeyless through 17 holes, doubled 18 for a 71. Defending champion Angel Cabrera was three-under through 12 but shot 73.

"The beautiful thing about this golf course is that there's a tragedy awaiting you just about on every hole," Watson said. "It's always there. And you always know it."

Then again, sometimes beauty is a tragedy averted.

Kim appeared to be on the verge of a disaster as he stood on the tee of the par-5 2nd hole. He had just hooked his drive into the trees well left of the fairway, and already his face was slicked with a thin layer of sweat.

"Wow," Kim said as his ball disappeared into the greenery.

He went to hit a provisional, but an official gave him the safe signal. Kim sauntered off to find his ball, toward certain doom, it seemed. He salvaged par. His 27 putts were his salvation. It was that kind of day, when the big names seemed kissed by good fortune, or maybe it was just good old-fashioned grit. By the end you had to believe we were in store for something amazing.

 

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