AUGUSTA, Ga. The roars don't echo through the pines as often as they used to at Augusta National Golf Club, where pars have never been so dear. But when they do resound, they're as loud as ever.
The difference from last year, when firm and windy conditions sent scores soaring in the first three rounds and gave the Masters a U.S. Open feel, was audible on Thursday.
The rumblings commenced early with the throaty cheers that rose when Arnold Palmer pumped the ceremonial opening tee shot down the fog-draped first fairway, making it official that the Masters Tournament, and possibly spring, had begun.
A few hours later, even Amen Corner felt the reverberation of the thunder emanating from the 16th hole, where Ian Poulter played a bank shot off the right half of the green for a hole-in-one that momentarily gave him a share of the lead. How loud was it? When the roar exploded, Tiger Woods backed off his shot at the adjacent sixth.
Later, Phil Mickelson set off some fireworks when he holed an unlikely chip from left of the first green. When a two-time Masters champ cashes in a get-out-of-jail-card-free on the opening hole in front of what was probably the second-largest gallery on the grounds, you're sure to hear about it.
Finally, there was you-know-who, strangely quiet for 14 holes. Woods parred the first 12, bogeyed the par-5 13th after his first chip from the swale just over the green ended up back in the same swale, then bogeyed the 14th when he pulled his drive into the pine needles on the left. What's this the same Tiger who was supposed to win the Grand Slam two over par with four holes to play?
Not to worry. He went just over the par-5 15th green in two, then landed a deft pitch on the back of the green and watched his ball roll to the edge of the cup, almost stop for a long moment (yes, just like the Most Famous Chip Ever three years ago at 16), then topple in for an eagle.
"The way the golf course plays now, you don't really shoot low rounds here anymore," Woods said. "You just plod along. It's more of a U.S. Open than a Masters. There was really only one roar I heard all day and that was Poultie's eagle. Other than that, it was really quiet."
Woods finished at even par, which left him four shots off the lead held by England's Justin Rose, who's making a habit out of getting the early foot in major championships (including being the leader at Augusta after one round a year ago and after each of the first two rounds in '04), and South Africa's Trevor Immelman. The slow start for Woods should not have been a surprise. He's never broken 70 in the first round at Augusta and hasn't shot under par on a Thursday since 2002, when he opened with 70 and, by the way, won.
Defending champion Zach Johnson also heard the commotions. "The loudest roar had to be that hole in one on 16," said Johnson, who shot 70 and made some noise himself when he holed an absurd, triple-breaking 50-footer on the fifth green. "I'm walking down 17 fairway, I heard a pretty substantial roar on 15, and sure enough, Tiger made eagle. That was pretty loud, too."
The eagle by Woods may prove relevant in the next three rounds, but the more glamorous shot was by Poulter, whose 8-iron landed in the right-center of the 16th green and rolled down the slope, hit the pin and dropped. If it hadn't gone in, it probably would've slid at least six or eight feet past the cup. The roar that ensued could have wakened an azalea.
"Massive," Poulter described it. "The hairs on the back of your neck were standing up. It was great. That's probably the biggest adrenaline rush I've ever had."
He was so fired up, in fact, that he flew a 5-iron over the 17th green and made bogey but still finished with a superb 70.
"I was on the fifth fairway and I hear a huge roar go up," said Rose of his countryman's achievement. "I knew there was a hole-in-one on 16. I glanced over on 16 tee and saw Poulter striding up the fairway all excited, and then I saw his name creep up on the leader board, so I had a little smile. I was quite pleased for him."
Rose, 27, is someone who bears watching. He and Woods were the only players to finish among the top 12 in all four majors last year. Though he hasn't won on the PGA Tour, Rose owns four victories in Europe, including a clutch win in last year's Volvo Masters that clinched that tour's Order of Merit title. He has long been considered a star in the making and last year he began to fulfill that potential. On Thursday, he was two over par through five holes, then made four birdies in a row on his way to an impressive 68.
"I'm more of a consistent player now," Rose said. "My consistency was great all last year, and I turned into more of a four-round player. I don't think I have to do anything different, just keep giving myself good chances. Hopefully, what I learned last year will help me finish the job off a little better."
That lesson was a costly one. Rose, you may recall, was only one stroke behind Johnson last April until he pushed a drive into the trees on the 71st hole and ended up in a tie for fifth. He prepared for this season by putting his clubs away for a month and spending six weeks improving his fitness. He didn't have an explanation for his knack for starting strongly at Augusta. "I work hard before [the tournament], get myself up for it and set my schedule to peak for this event, and I feel that I was doing that," he said. "I knew my game was getting close. The extra atmosphere and adrenaline and [nerves] sort of brought out the best in me."
Among the notables who didn't respond quite as well to the juiced-up ambiance were CA Championship winner Geoff Ogilvy, who shot a birdieless 75; '92 Masters winner Fred Couples, who shot 76; Stuart Appleby, last year's 54-hole leader, who also shot 76, and Augusta native Charles Howell, who posted a 78.
"It's a four-round tournament, not a one-round tournament," a disappointed Ogilvy said. "This just makes it harder." At the Masters, there are always future roars out there just waiting to be earned.