AUGUSTA, Ga. – Already seven months behind schedule because of the pandemic, the most unusual Masters was 30 minutes old Thursday when the silence was interrupted by a rumble down by Amen Corner.
No roars this week. Just thunder. And then a weather delay of nearly three hours.
All that, and it was still worth the wait.
Paul Casey matched his lowest score at the Masters with a 7-under 65, giving him a two-shot lead among half the field fortunate to play in perfect scoring conditions. Tiger Woods matched his lowest start, a 68, and kept a bogey-free card in a major for the first time in 11 years.
The course was different than what they expected, a result of the rain and the calendar. The silence was exactly what they expected because majors haven't had spectators in 16 months.
But it was still the Masters.
“So many people like myself are just excited to play this,” Casey said. “This is a treat. It always has been and always will be a real treat.”
No doubt, the absence of roars was as eerie as the sound of a drone that approached the first tee as Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player prepared to hit their ceremonial tee shots. The Masters is using two drones this year, a first.
“A lot of firsts today. That's kind of the way this entire year has been,” Woods said. “The fact that we’re able to compete for a Masters this year, considering all that’s been going on, it’s a great opportunity for all of us.”
Casey found energy from the familiarity of the course, from the history, from the mystique. And it was enough to carry him to a round he needed on a day — a partial day — of low scoring. Twelve of the 48 players who finished shot in the 60s.
Woods, a notorious slow starter despite his five green jackets, had one moment where he thought trouble might lurk. It was the fifth hole, which he bogeyed all four rounds last year when he won the Masters. He hit a low fade off the tee that left him 227 yards to the hole.
“Hit a 4-iron to the back edge and it only rolled out a foot,” Woods said. “That doesn’t happen here.”
The biggest crowd — about 100 people in this case — was two groups ahead of Woods watching Bryson DeChambeau smash shots into trees and one shot into the azaleas bushes behind the 13th green. He was lucky to find it because his provisional shot went into the creek. He still made double bogey, though he managed to scratch out a 70.
So much action, typical of the Masters, and so little volume.
And for so many players, they wouldn't want to be anywhere else.
“I was vocal earlier in the year about not enjoying golf in a pandemic,” Casey said. "I didn't know how the fan-less experience would be and so far, I've not enjoyed it. I've had nothing, or very little, to draw on from being out playing tournament golf. The Masters, though, this week it still has a buzz to it. There's an energy and a little bit of vibe.
“Yes, it's clearly a lot less than what we're used to. But there's something about this place. I felt excited to be here.”
The excitement for Casey began on the fearsome 10th hole when he hit his approach to a front pin about 5 feet away for birdie. He had eagle chances on both par 5s on the back nine and settled for birdies. He took on a left pin at the par-5 second with a 6-iron and watched the ball plop 6 feet away for eagle.
“You can’t hit that shot in April,” he said. “It pitched and stopped instantly, and that shot in April would have one-hopped over into the patrons.”
Webb Simpson played a tidy round, making eagle on No. 2 after the turn and finishing with seven pars for a 67. He was joined by Xander Schauffele, a runner-up to Woods last year, who had seven birdies in his round of 67.
“You're going at pins that you wouldn’t really feel that comfortable with,” Schauffele said. “There’s so many spots where your ball will stay. It was just really strange.”
Lee Westwood wasn't sure he would ever make it back to the Masters, earning a ticket back with his tie for fourth in the British Open last summer. The best player without a major showed he still has some life at age 47. He shot 31 on the front and limited the damage on the back for a 68, joining the group that included Woods, former Masters champion Patrick Reed, Hideki Matsuyama and Louis Oosthuizen.
Dustin Johnson, the world's No. 1 player, was among those who played in the afternoon and had to return Friday morning to finish. He opened with an eagle on No. 2 and was 3 under at the turn. Justin Thomas started with three straight birdies and was at 5 under through 10 holes.
Rory McIlroy also played in the afternoon, made bogey on his first hole and was struggling to make birdies. He was even par at the turn, which felt worse on a day like this.
The delay was the last thing the Masters needed with limited daylight hours leading to the two-tee start. Every minute counts, and it was doubtful 36 holes could be completed by Friday.
The loudest cheer — applause, certainly not a roar — came for Nicklaus and Player hitting tee shots so early that they couldn't see where they landed. Five groups got through one hole before the siren sounded to stop play for 2 hours, 45 minutes. And then players began to light up the course as the clouds moved to the east and those famous shadows from Georgia pines stretched across the fairways.
It looked just the Masters, minus the spring blooms, even if it didn’t sound like one.