The only three men to win back-to-back Masters — Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods — happen to be the three toughest golfers, mentally, this side of Hogan. Now Adam Scott is looking to join the club.
His opening round at the Masters on Thursday, a steady three-under-par 69 with one hiccup — was the same first-day score he signed for last year, when he won in a playoff over Angel Cabrera. Cabrera, obviously paying tribute to the gone-but-not-forgotten Tiger Woods by wearing black trousers and a red shirt, shot 78. He won’t be playing 74 holes this week.
The chance of a playoff this year is high, higher than usual, and that’s saying something because since 2003, five green coats have been won in extra innings. The reason we may be in for another playoff is the course was already firm and fast on Thursday and, under a relentlessly blue sky and in a warm wind, it became firmer and faster over the course of the day. On Friday and Saturday and especially Sunday, the course will only become more difficult. Under such conditions, a player can’t run away from the field.
Bill Haas, the first-round leader, shot 68, a score he posted fairly early in the day. King Louis Oosthuizen’s late-day 69, which wrapped up around six o’clock, was played under slight more difficult circumstances. Finishing even later, 2012 Masters champ Bubba Watson matched Oosthuizen’s score.
Haas is the son of the much-beloved Champions Tour player Jay Haas. Jay is the nephew of the much-beloved 1968 Masters champion Bob Goalby. In that tournament, Goalby was the author of the most profane and effective self-directed dressing down in the history of golf. Because children and ladies might be reading this far, the comment will not be repeated here, but the less sensitive are invited to Google (in any order) dog, Goalby, mother and choking.
Young Bill — he’s 31 and the perfect age to win his first major — would never resort to such language, as he is mild-mannered, super-polite and already a millionaire many times over. He won the 2011 FedEx Cup and with it the $180 million first-place prize, or whatever it is. There’s only one salty-tongued working-class American golfer anymore, and he’s not in the field this week.
A pre-tournament myth was that ice-storm damage had thinned out the course’s many forests and that the course would play easier. Except for the absence of the iconic (but unnecessary) Eisenhower Tree on 17, the course looks exactly as it did last year. The tee shots on 11 and 18 are still absurdly claustrophobic, and you can’t miss right on 13. The course needs more ice storms.
What the green-coated fellas did, in their secret efforts to, quote, defend par, was make the Thursday pin placements more difficult than they typically are. This is a very subtle thing — a yard here, a yard there — but obvious to veteran spectators. Master Scott — still unmarried, ladies — didn’t particularly notice it, but Rory McIlroy, who opened with a 71 after a three-putt bogey at the last, said the pins were very trying for a Thursday, particularly, he said, “all of them.” They really were. Nine was on a ridge, 10 was way close to the front, 18 was off the green by a half a yard. Scott was playing too well to notice much.
It’s fun to start thinking about what Scott could do over the next three days, as he strides the hills and valleys of this gorgeous course with Steve Williams at his side and his trusty long-shafted putter in his bag. But there’s evidence, from way back when and more recent, that closing is not exactly in his wheelhouse. Some of you young people might not remember the 2012 British Open, when he had a four-shot lead with four holes to play before losing to Ernie Els. At Bay Hill last month, he had a seven-shot lead at the halfway point, shot a 76 on Sunday and cleared a path for Matt Every to win Arnold Palmer’s tournament and get a ticket to Augusta.
Golf’s real king is far too gentlemanly to name names, but in remarks this week he noted he was troubled by the various blown leads he has seen on Tour this year. And Palmer, who won his final major at Augusta National 50 years ago, knows a thing or two about blown leads. But the reason Nicklaus, Faldo and Woods are in a club within the club is because they knew how to play with a lead, increase a lead and close the deal. Adam Scott is a pleasure to watch, to interview, to play with. Over the next three days he’ll have a chance to, as they say in other sports, take it to a whole ’nother level.