AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) Charley Hoffman snagged a pair of valuable autographs on the Augusta National driving range.
Then he turned in a Masters round that would’ve been familiar to Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.
Going out shortly after sunrise in the first group of the tournament, Hoffman shot a 5-under 67 Thursday to take the clubhouse lead – his best score ever in a major championship.
With all eyes on Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods, the 38-year-old Californian managed to grab a share of the spotlight with a strong start and an even better finish.
”When it’s a little bit damp like it was today, you can be aggressive at some pins,” said Hoffman, who was one stroke ahead of Russell Henley. ”I knew I could be aggressive.”
He also showed some spunk when he spotted Nicklaus and Palmer warming up on the range, getting ready to hit their ceremonial opening tee shots along with Gary Player.
Hoffman had purchased a couple of Masters flags the night before, and he persuaded Nicklaus and Palmer to sign them. They’ll be auctioned off to benefit Hoffman favorite charities.
”That was pretty cool,” Hoffman said. ”I was sort of scared of them. `Should I ask them? Should I not ask them?”’
Maybe the quest for autographs helped to calm the nerves. Whatever the case, Hoffman birdied the second and third holes, just the start he needed in his first Masters appearance since 2011.
He struggled a bit through the middle of the round, but surged back to the top of the leaderboard with an eagle at the par-5 15th, followed by birdies at the 16th and 18th holes.
The last of them was set up by a brilliant approach from 180 yards that stopped 3 feet from the cup at the difficult closing hole.
Henley shot 68, while Justin Rose also was at 4 under. Another stroke back were Bill Haas, Paul Casey and Kevin Streelman, who won the Par 3 Contest.
McIlroy also played in the morning, alongside three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson. The 25-year-old from Northern Ireland has a shot at history, needing only the Masters to round out a career Grand Slam.
Just five players in the modern era have won all four of golf’s biggest titles: Nicklaus, Player, Woods, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen.
McIlroy got off to a shaky start, yanking his tee shot at No. 2 into a creek that runs far left of the fairway. After taking a drop, he lined one off the pine straw and got in position to save par.
He remained even for the round approaching the turn on a sunny, sweltering day at Augusta, the temperature climbing toward the upper 80s.
Woods had an afternoon tee time, making his return to competition after going on hiatus back in early February to work on his struggling game. He’s battled injuries and looked more like a weekend duffer than a 14-time major champion in his last appearance at Torrey Pines.
But Woods insists that he’s ready to contend again for his first major title since 2008.
”I’m excited to be back, to be back playing at this level,” he said this week. ”I feel like my game is finally ready to compete at this level, the highest level.”
Bubba Watson is trying to join Nicklaus, Woods and Nick Faldo as the only Masters champions to defend their titles. Watson, who has won the green jacket two of the last three years, was off to a solid star at 1 under through 12 holes.
Also keep an eye on Jordan Spieth, who made a run at becoming the youngest Masters champion in his debut a year ago. Now 21, he might be the hottest player on the PGA Tour, having won, finished second, and lost in a playoff in his past three starts.
”Last year,” Spieth said, ”I had no expectations, didn’t know what it was going to be like, had never played the tournament before. This year, I come in maybe expecting to play well on a course I feel very comfortable on. I feel like it suits my game nicely, and I also feel like I’ve been playing well.’