AUGUSTA, Ga. – Birdies were as precious as pearls on Day 1 at the Masters and even harder to string together. Two in a row practically passed for a necklace. So when Justin Rose went eagle-birdie-birdie through the turn at Augusta National, few doubted something really special was in store.
The Englishman did not disappoint.
A lucky carom off a greenside mound at the par-5 8th set up an eagle putt that erased Rose’s 2-over start and ignited a run that saw him rack up seven more birdies over the final 11 holes. Five of those birdie putts were inside 8 feet and he made a 12-footer for par on the one green he missed.
“If you had said to me walking up the 8th hole, I’d have said, ‘No chance, this course is playing a little too tricky for that,’” Rose recalled. “But it’s incredible. It’s a good reminder that you just never know what can happen out there, just to stick with it on the golf course.”
Rose’s 65 left him four shots clear of his closest pursuers — Brian Harman and Hideki Matsuyama – on a day when only a dozen players broke par, and miles ahead of defending champion Dustin Johnson (74) and a host of big names expected to contend.
A quick sampling of some of the names who might have to rally just to make the cut: Brooks Koepka, 74; Bryson DeChambeau and Rory McIlroy (76); and Patrick Cantlay (79). On safer turf were 2015 Masters champion Jordan Spieth (71), Jon Rahm (72) and Justin Thomas (73).
“It was a battle. That’s all I can say,” Rahm said. “There was not one moment where you felt relaxed, or where I felt relaxed out there. ... All of them were pretty tense.”
How tense? Well, the day’s lightest moment may have occurred when McIlroy hit his father, Gerry, with his approach shot into No. 7.
“I knew it was my dad when I was aiming at him,” McIlroy chuckled afterward. “I think he just needs to go and put some ice on — maybe I’ll autograph a bag of frozen peas for him.”
Speaking of autographs, Abraham Ancer signed for a 73 and pronounced himself pleased leaving the course. “Played good,” he said. “I’m not mad or disappointed.”
But that was before tournament officials docked him two strokes several hours later after a video review showed Ancer had touched the sand with his club in a bunker at No. 15.
Incredibly, that wasn’t even the cruelest moment on that hole.
Shane Lowry’s eagle chip from behind the green rolled slowly toward the hole, yet somehow didn’t stop until it slithered off the green and into the pond in front. Not to be outdone, Bernd Weisberger had a putt for eagle from the left side of the green and watched, with a hand stuck to his hip and growing panic on his face, as the ball waltzed past the flag and drowned itself in the same pond.
But the same No. 15 turned a generous face to Spieth. His chip for eagle from behind the green appeared destined for the same watery grave when the flagstick got in the way.
“It wasn’t just going in the water,“ Spieth said, ”it might have gotten to the middle of the water. Probably the luckiest break I’ve ever gotten out here, if not anywhere, because that was at least a three-shot break.”
It was that kind of day.
The Masters was postponed last April because of the pandemic and finally staged just five months ago in soft, yielding conditions. After Thursday’s fiasco, most of the field would have lobbied for a permanent return to November. Nothing doing.
Instead, the green jackets took full advantage of the warm spring weather and let the greens dry out like days-old toast. The first-round scoring average was 74.5, more than three strokes higher than in November, when 53 players finished the first day in the red.
“I feel sorry for the guys’ first Masters in November, and then they’re walking out there today wondering what the hell is going on,” said Kevin Kisner, who shot 72.
For all that, the round began auspiciously enough when Masters officials invited Lee Elder, the first Black golfer to compete in the tournament, to join six-time winner Jack Nicklaus and three-time champion Gary Player for the opening tee-shot ceremony.
Elder’s health wouldn’t allow him to take a swing alongside the duo, but the 86-year-old raised his driver to warm applause from the spectators lining the tee box.
“My heart is very soft this morning, not heavy soft, soft because of the wonderful things that I have encountered since arriving here,” Elder said afterward, sitting alongside Nicklaus and Player, “and being able to see some of the great friends that I have made over the past years, especially these two gentlemen here.”