AUGUSTA, Ga. —Dustin Johnson and his balky back may have withdrawn from this 81st Masters, but Mother Nature most certainly did not. The rain that saturated Augusta National for much of the last three days mercifully ceased hours before the first round commenced, but the wind continued to howl, leaving a trail of swaying loblollies, shivering patrons and battered scorecards in its wake.
Charley Hoffman, meanwhile, appeared to play in a vacuum.
Competing in his fourth Masters, the four-time PGA Tour winner put together what might have been the best round of the year and arguably one of the greatest first rounds in Masters history: a nine-birdie, seven-under 65—including five birdies in his last seven holes—on a day when the scoring average was a staggering 10 strokes north of that.
We’ll leave it to Jim Nantz and Jimmy Roberts to debate where Hoffman’s opening round ranks among other great first rounds at the Masters—Greg Norman’s 63 in 1996 was also 10 strokes better than the field average—but it was undoubtedly epic stuff, made more impressive still by the fact that he had two three-putts and a water ball on 13.
Said Hoffman, “For lack of any better words, it was a dream.”
Hoffman, 40, beat the moisture-wicking pants off the pre-tournament favorites, including Rory McIlroy (72), Jason Day (74), and Jordan Spieth (75). He didn’t need to worry about fending off the world’s hottest player (yes, Johnson), who withdrew on Thursday afternoon after straining his back in a bizarre episode at his rental house a day earlier. Johnson said he was racing outside to move his car when he slipped down a flight of three steps. He landed awkwardly on his elbow and lower back, injuring both.
Johnson’s status for the tournament was still in doubt when he arrived at the course on Thursday. As he warmed up on the range and spoke to tournament officials, DJ Watch was in full effect. Golf Channel gave him the O.J.-Bronco treatment, following his every step from cameras high above. After some apparent hemming and hawing with his caddie-brother (Austin) and coach (Butch Harmon), Johnson made it to the 1st tee for his 2:03 p.m. starting time, which seemed to indicate he would give it a go. But moments later he reversed course, deciding he wasn’t game-ready. “It sucks really bad,” he said later in inimitable DJ fashion.
Four strokes back of Hoffman is another surprise contender: Masters rookie William McGirt, son of Lumberton, N.C, and more mini tours (the Carolina Mountain Tour, anyone?) than you ever knew existed. “Sneaky short” (his words), McGirt plotted his way around the slopes of Augusta like a master tactician, posting four birdies against a lone bogey.
“I love it when it’s tough,” McGirt woofed.
How tough was it?
Spieth arrived on the tee at the 12th hole looking to vanquish the demons that have haunted him since he made a quad on the devilish par-3 in the final round a year ago. Vanquish them he did, with a routine par, but three holes later, at the par-5 15th, which was playing dead into the wind, Augusta struck again. After laying up with his second shot, Spieth spun his approach off the front of the green and into the water. A couple of scruffy shots and a three-putt later, he had carded yet another quad.
“There is such a thing as a good bogey out here at the moment,” Larry Mize, the 1987 champion, said after his round of 74.
But a good quad? Not so much.
It was that kind of day, though. Balls oscillated. Gusts blew sand out of the bunkers. Club selection was maddening, as was factoring in the breeze on the greens.
“It’s more like an Open Championship,” Englishman Andy Sullivan said after a one-under 71. “The gusts are just killer. Adam [Scott] had a putt on 17 and it is straight downhill, and it almost blew back up the hill.”
Kevin Chappell, who also signed for a 71, said he was in “survival mode.” Fred Couples, playing in his 32nd Masters, said, “I’ve never seen it like this.” Added 59-year-old Scotsman Sandy Lyle after a 74, “You can’t get too greedy—you could get your backside spanked.” (Sandy, the term is “ass-kicking” on this side of the pond.)
Lee Westwood assumed his customary position among the early leaders in a major. After a sloppy 39 on the front, he ran off five consecutive birdies starting at the 13th to climb to two under, five back of Hoffman. Lurking in a logjam of eight players at one under are Sergio Garcia, Justin Rose and 46-year-old Phil Mickelson, who claimed to “love” the fierce conditions because it take less experienced players out of the mix.
“The wind is going to magnify your misses,” Mickelson said, “and a lot of the guys that aren’t familiar with this course and where you can go to on certain holes for certain pins will miss in the wrong spot and end up making big numbers.”
The day began with a somber tribute as the club honored Arnold Palmer on the 1st tee. With Palmer’s green jacket draped over a chair on the tee box, a glassy-eyed Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player struck the ceremonial opening shots. Among the pros in attendance were McGirt and Rickie Fowler. Daniel Summerhays, in the first group of the day with Russell Henley, took in the moment from the putting green.
“I had goose bumps thinking about Jack,” Summerhays said, speaking for the entire golf world. “He could barely see the golf ball, he was in tears.”
Whether Hoffman will shed tears of his own come Sunday is far too early to say. (Surely you recall how Norman’s week ended after that opening 63 in ’96?) And that’s a truth Hoffman well knows.
“There wasn’t a ton of pressure today,” he said. “You’re just trying to make ends meet. Just want to start hitting the fairways so you can hit the green and have the ability to make the putt.
“Obviously going to sleep on the lead at a major championship here at Augusta National is not going to be the easiest thing. I look forward to it, and I look forward to the challenge the next three days.”
Wind, rain or shine.