AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — Last year’s Ryder Cup rookies were this year’s early leaders at the Masters. Zach Johnson and Henrik Stenson were among the few players shooting under par Thursday during a slow start at Augusta.
Johnson, from Lake Mary, Fla., shared the lead at 1-under-par along with Stenson, the Swede who sank the winning putt in Europe’s rout at the K Club last year.
Arron Oberholser, Justin Rose, Paul Goydos and two-time champion Jose Maria Olazabal were the only other players under par, with more than half the field on the course.
Tiger Woods, in search of his fifth green jacket and third straight major, had a 1:52 p.m. tee time, just before two-time champion Vijay Singh and Brett Quigley, who left earlier in the week for the birth of his daughter but was returning to play.
Phil Mickelson got off to a rough start in defense of his title, hitting his second shot from the pine straw and his third from the sand en route to a bogey on the first hole. He was 1 over through four.
Other well-known players were in even deeper trouble. Ernie Els made double bogey on the first hole and was 4 over through five, tied with defending U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy, who had a triple-bogey 8 on the second hole.
Ian Woosnam, the 1991 champion, withdrew with a back injury. Fred Couples, playing in his first tournament since he wrenched his back warming up at Pebble Beach, was 1 over through five holes.
A stroke off the lead, at par, was a big group including 57-year-old Tom Watson, Davis Love III and another Ryder Cup rookie from last year, Augusta native Vaughn Taylor.
The tournament kicked off when Arnold Palmer hit the ceremonial tee shot from a first teebox that used to be the practice green.
Palmer’s shot went into the left rough, about 100 yards short and on the opposite side of the fairway from the bunker that’s in play for the big hitters.
“That little draw off that first tee kept me out of the sand trap up there,” Palmer joked.
For plenty of other players, that sand trap was in play on the first hole.
It was all part of the plan when the powers at Augusta started expanding their course – first in 1999 and again in 2002 and 2006. They got tired of watching players drive over that trap that Palmer joked about, to say nothing of all the other holes that were being overpowered and turned into pitch-and-chip displays.
“They saw Tiger emasculate the golf course, they saw him hitting sand wedge and pitching wedge two times each on 17, and they said they didn’t want people doing that anymore,” Watson said Wednesday, acknowledging that the course had gotten too big for him to play effectively.
Instead, Woods and Mickelson were the two most obvious favorites on a course that used to be a great equalizer – favoring flat sticks over flat bellies – but has since become a power player’s track.
It was Tiger’s 12-stroke victory in 1997 that helped bring about changes that have, in many opinions, eliminated all but the biggest hitters from having a real chance on this 7,445-yard course.
Woods and Mickelson have won five of the last six Masters, and the shorter hitters have been left to wonder if they’re only field-fillers, not true contenders.
“Since they lengthened the golf course, the golf course plays to their advantage,” Olazabal said. “The longer the golf course, the better it is for the longer hitters.”
On that short list would also be Els and Singh. Stenson has been a popular choice this year. Ogilvy was, too, though his rough start put a damper on that.
As for guys like Goydos and Scott Verplank? Probably not gonna happen. Verplank had birdies on two of the first three holes, but had ballooned to 2 over after 12.
“It can be done,” Verplank said. “But it does put a handful of guys at a much greater advantage, and those guys all hit the ball farther than I do. I was playing a practice round with Davis Love III, and he’s launching it 300 yards to the top of the hill on the first hole. I’m just hoping I can see the green.”
The only assist the little guys might get is from the weather.
Unlike some recent slogfests, where rain and muck softened things up and took away all the roll, dry, sunny and cool conditions are expected this week. As noon approached, Augusta National was bathed in sunshine with light breezes and temperatures in the 50s.