Clark shakes off the rust with 73 at Augusta

Tim Clark, of South Africa, hits his approach shot to the second green during the first round of the Masters.

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AUGUSTA, Ga. – Everything about the conditions told Tim Clark that it was a demanding venue at which to continue his comeback. Long, soft and extremely wet.

But one sentiment not only ushered him to the first tee but got him through Round 1 with a smile.

“I think it’s a product of being here at the Masters,” Clark said after posting a 1-over 73. “Coming here is going to bring the best out of you. Maybe it’s that little bit of added excitement, got the body feeling a bit better. Today was the first day I actually hit some decent shots.”

Now 73s rarely get players smiling at the PGA Tour level, only Clark’s story mandates that things get a different shade of perspective. Clark achieved his first PGA Tour win at the 2010 Players Championship, but it’s been painfully downhill ever since, thanks to an elbow injury that finally required surgery in 2011.

He’s playing this week for just the third time this year and only the seventh time since the start of 2011. His appearance here comes on the heels of a missed cut at the Transitions Championship and a DQ at the Arnold Palmer Invitational because Clark got sloppy and signed an incorrect scorecard in the first round.

Agreed, Augusta National and the Masters is a tough assignment at which to bring a rusty game, but Clark is determined.

“It’s slowly getting better,” he said of the elbow. “Until now, I’ve struggled, but I feel like every time I come out and play, I’m finding something new, something different that I haven’t been doing. So I feel like I’m finding my swing and my game again.”

Having bogeyed 10 and 11 to go 2 over, Clark birdied the par-5 13th, then rode home with five consecutive pars and wasn’t denying “that obviously I’m pleased to have shot 73.”

Yes, because of the rust, but also because after heavy rain Tuesday night and late Wednesday afternoon, Augusta National is a 7,435-yard course that feels like it’s 8,435. Clark needed a 3-hybrid to reach the 445-yard first hole and all round was hitting approach shots with longer clubs than many of his colleagues will require.

But it’s his 11th Masters and it’s not like he doesn’t know what he needs to do – and history suggests he has the proper skill sets to adjust. In fact, as Clark searched his memory for past Masters that have been as wet as this week, he realized 2003 and 2006 are two that compare. He finished T-13 and second, respectively, in those appearances.

Still, “it needs to be firmer,” Clark insists, to bring more players into the mix.

Maybe, maybe not. But for now, the 36-year-old South African was more focused on a round of golf that had gone well, all things considered. He has practiced extensively for the past few months, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. “I’ve been thinking too much,” he said.

So while the scores at the Transitions (75-75) and Bay Hill (80) were nothing to get excited about, Clark is thrilled to be here. “You’re not going to improve by sitting at home. I need to get out and play,” he said.

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