AUGUSTA, Ga. — Larry Mize rarely gets through a week at the Masters without someone asking him about the improbable chip-in on the 11th hole to beat Greg Norman in a playoff. Thursday brought a question not many saw coming.
Does he dare think about winning another green jacket?
Mize turned in one of the most surprising rounds at Augusta National with a 5-under 67 that put him atop the leaderboard for most of the morning and left him only two shots out of the lead after the first round.
“I did not imagine a 67,” he said. “I came out hoping to play a good round.”
Mize turned 50 last September and joined the Champions Tour, playing five times this year, including a tie for 33rd in the Dominican Republic two weeks ago. But he can always plan on that drive down Magnolia Lane because of the Masters title he won in 1987.
“I know I don’t have many more years to be competitive here,” Mize said. “And I need to take advantage of it now.”
He sure took advantage of gorgeous conditions on a gentle course, making three birdies on the opening five holes and watching his name go up on the leaderboard after hitting 5-iron to 15 feet for a birdie on No. 10.
“I’m happy they didn’t have to take it down,” Mize said.
The Augusta native had not even broken par since he shot 67 in the second round in 2000. For whatever reason, he was invigorated driving into the club for the Champions Dinner, reminding himself to enjoy the walk.
“It never gets to be not fun,” Mize said. “It’s disappointing to come here and play poorly. But the way I feel now, I do want to play well, but I’m trying to let go of the frustration and disappointment and just enjoy the fact that I get to come back here every year and play.”
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NO DOWNTURN: Fans who’ve been coming to Augusta National for years said they didn’t notice any drop-off in attendance this year because of the struggling economy. No surprise, really. Compared with other major events, Masters tickets are a great deal. A four-day badge is $200, and passes for the practice rounds are $36 each for Monday and Tuesday, and $41 for Wednesday.
“It’s about average for a Thursday,” said E.J. Morrow of Dallas, who’s been coming to the Masters for the last five years. “I expected it because it’s so contained. It’s hard to get tickets, and it’s a world-wide event.”
Augusta National won’t say how many tickets are sold, but it is believed to be about 25,000 for the tournament, and 40,000 for each of the practice rounds. The four-day badges for the tournament are sold out, and so many people want them Augusta National isn’t even taking names for the waiting list anymore. So even if some fans took a pass on tickets this year, there were plenty of others eager to take them.
“It’s such a limited thing,” said Beverlie Hunter, who has been coming to the Masters with her husband, Al, for almost 20 years.
Parking is free and, once fans are in the gates, they’ll find food prices more suited for 1970 than 2009. Some sandwiches are just $1.50, and a club sandwich, beer and potato chips will run you all of $6.25.
If there is any place that’s vulnerable, it’s the merchandise stores. There wasn’t the usual line of people snaking through the entry pavilion as they waited to get inside, and some fans said they will probably wind up buying less than usual.
“No, it has not yet affected the club,” chairman Billy Payne said when asked about the shaky global economy. “If it is prolonged for multiple additional years, we would, of course, expect to be impacted. But based on our conservative planning that’s gone on now for several decades, we expect to be here every year and do it at the same level that we have been able to do it for prior years.”
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YOUTH MOVEMENT: So much for the kids waiting their turn.
Teenagers Rory McIlroy, Ryo Ishikawa and Danny Lee aren’t on the leaderboard, but all turned in respectable scores in their first round at the Masters on Thursday. McIlroy, the 19-year-old sensation from Northern Ireland, did the best, shooting an even-par 72. The 17-year-old Ishikawa was one stroke back, and 18-year-old Danny Lee — the only amateur in the bunch — had a 74.
McIlroy said he wasn’t really nervous. “Over the first tee shot I was probably,” he said. “But once the first shot is off, you’re off and running and then you’re just trying to shoot the lowest score possible.”
Having a teen sensation is nothing new in golf. But it’s unusual to have several, and with such impressive credentials.
McIlroy beat a strong field in Dubai this year and already is No. 17 in the world. Ishikawa won his first Japan Golf Tour event at 15, won as a pro last year and is missing high school to be at Augusta National. Lee bumped Tiger Woods out of the record books as the youngest U.S. Amateur champion, then became the youngest winner in European Tour history when he won the Johnnie Walker Classic.
Lee had said all week he was nervous at the prospect of playing in the Masters. He tried to calm down before his afternoon round by hitting balls, putting and watching a movie.
Stepping up to the first tee “was pretty cool,” he said, though the crowd made him nervous.
“But I don’t think they’re following me. I think they were following Trevor Immelman and Adam Scott,” he said.
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HE’S BACK: Jose Maria Olazabal looked pretty good for a guy who’s barely played.
Olazabal has played only twice this year because of rheumatism, and didn’t expect much when he arrived at Augusta National. But something about this place brings out the best in the two-time Masters champion, and he shot a 1-under 71 in the first round Thursday.
“Obviously, I’m very happy about it,” he said. “It’s a special place for me. It brings me wonderful memories, I won’t deny that. I get quite emotional every time I put my feet in this part of the world.”
Olazabal won the Masters in 1994 and 1999. He has three other top-five finishes, including a tie for third in 2006. He missed the cut last year.