AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The branches of the towering old oak tree outside the Augusta National clubhouse waved their newly green leaves in Thursday afternoon’s gusting winds, no small feat considering the iconic tree is wired together like a Tinker Toy. Patchy clouds darted across the mostly blue sky like lost racing greyhounds.
Pick your favorite adjective to describe the day -- windy, breezy, blustery, gusty. Mainly, it was a tough day to play golf.
Here's one thing we know. Tom Watson, the ageless 66-year-old, has a better chance of making the cut than does 27-year-old Rickie Fowler, the fifth-ranked player in the world.
"Golf is a crazy four-letter word," said Fowler, who mustered the best smile he could after getting smacked down by two double bogeys and a triple en route to an opening 80.
Watson, meanwhile, shot a two-over 74 in the opening round of what he has said will be his final Masters appearance.
Eighty? Yeow! Fowler shooting 80 is the equivalent of Michigan State losing to Middle Tennessee State in the NCAA basketball tournament. Fowler was expected to build on his young-gun credentials and be a factor this week. Probably not now, not unless he pulls off some kind of sensational rally on Friday.
“It’s tough out there, very tricky,” said England’s Lee Westwood, who signed for a one-under-par 71 after a three-putt at the last. “There were no gimmie holes. Considering that there was going to be wind, the flags weren't easy by any means.”
Overnight rain softened the greens enough to make scoring possible, though challenging, in the wind.
It was a good day to tee off early because the gusts picked up and swirled stronger as the afternoon wore on. The scene had to be a bit demoralizing when Rory McIlroy teed off in the final group at 2:01 p.m. The 1st tee was all the way back, and the wind was blustering into the players’ faces. All McIlroy had to do was glance to his left at the giant leader board near the 18th green and see that defending champion Jordan Spieth was already five under par through 14 holes, feel the wind in his face and wonder how any score like that was going to be possible in the afternoon. Spieth finished off his day with a birdie at 18 to get to six under in a bogey-free round.
Mistakes in the wind proved costly. “I made some good swings,” Fowler said by way of explanation.
After a double bogey at the 1st, he rallied to get back to even par at the turn. But at the par-5 13th, he pushed his drive into the right trees, played his second shot right of Rae’s Creek, dumped his third into the water and, after a penalty, played his fifth shot long. He needed three more shots to hole out. A triple bogey.
At the par-5 15th, he said he hit a great shot. “The wind dies down, the ball goes over the green,” he lamented. Another bogey.
At the par-3 16th, Fowler said, “The wind’s supposed to be off to the left, and I tugged a 7-iron a little bit and end up in the water.” Another double. “They add up quick,” Fowler said matter-of-factly.
The winds were unpredictable. At the par-3 4th hole, Fowler struck a 6-iron that pleased him. A gust caught the shot, and his ball came up 20 yards short. He made a terrific up-and-down to save par. “The wind was just coming up and laying down here and there,” he said. “You had to judge it and time it right.”
Fowler trails Spieth by 14 shots. He is six shots behind Watson, who played a notable round. He birdied the 3rd hole to get under par and shared the early lead for almost an hour. It was no ordinary birdie.
“When you make a 45-footer that breaks about eight feet, it’s not like it was straight uphill from three feet,” he said with a laugh. “I made a mistake off the tee, hit a pretty good shot out of the bunker and felt like I was stealing a little bit on that hole.”
Watson gave a stroke back at the 7th after calling a penalty stroke on himself. Facing an 18-inch putt, he rested his putter behind the ball and it moved. “I caused it to move so I had to move it back,” he said.
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He remains the ultimate competitor. He is not here to take bows; he is here to compete the best he can, whatever that means.
“I think 74 is not bad for old folks,” Watson said. “I can't complain. Every round of golf I've ever played, though, I've always said it could have been better. I made some good putts that I was very happy with.”
Watson was businesslike in his answers about the emotion of the day, which came in the form of long, warm applause from the galleries on nearly every hole. He took his cap off at the 12th tee in response. But he isn't going to give in to that emotion as long as he's fighting to make the cut at the Masters one last time.
“There was a lot of nice applause throughout the course,” Watson said. “It was a pleasure to be able to play in front of them. I wish I'd played a little bit better, get in a little bit better position to make my goal, making the cut.”
That's his target. A man has to know his limitations and Watson, a two-time Masters champion, understands his.
“I don't have the tools for this tournament,” he said. “I don’t have the length to play this course. At 14, I hit a good drive and a 5-iron, and downwind with a 5-iron it’s not going to stop. Look at 18. I hit a drive, but I’ve got 205 yards to the front of the green. The other guys are a good 60 yards ahead of me, and Lee Westwood’s caddie said there are guys who it hit 40 yards past Lee there. So it’s a game of length. I used to play that game when I was a kid. I had my advantage. I had length and height, I could hit that ball softly into these greens. That's what you have to do.”
Fowler has many Masters ahead of him, no matter what happens on Friday. Watson, who is making his 43rd appearance, has none.
“It was an excellent round of golf,” Westwood said of Watson’s play. “He’s a legend, isn't he?”
Friday will determine whether there are three more rounds of golf in Watson’s Masters legend. He can take his bows and wave goodbyes later. On Friday, he’ll do what he always does—play hard.