AUGUSTA, Ga. – We wanted roars. We got them.
On a warm, sunny day with wind a non-factor, birdies returned in bunches at the Masters.
Benign conditions combined with soft, receptive greens and accessible pins made the big leaderboard at 18 turn to a sea of red in the first round. A record 38 golfers broke par at Augusta National.
On a day ripe for low scoring, no one took advantage more than some of the shortest hitters in the field.
“They let us be aggressive,” Jim Furyk said.
Furyk, who ranks 168th in driving distance on the PGA Tour (273 yards) said he liked seeing the wind – what little there was – coming out of the west and making the long par 4s (No. 7, 14, and 17) play downwind while neutralizing the par 5s (No. 13 and 15).
“There were some accessible pins out there. Places where you could get to the hole, and the greens were also somewhat receptive,” he said, after shooting a 66, tied for second. “Like the front right on 14 today, I hit a ball that probably cleared the front mounding by about 12 inches and the ball rolled up there about 3 feet and I had a tap-in for birdie.”
He wasn’t the only shortpoker who found the fast and firm conditions to his liking.
• First-round leader Chad Campbell (65) birdied the first five holes, a Masters record, and threatened the course-record of 63. He is the longest of the short-knockers on the leaderboard, ranked 46th in driving distance this year on the Tour, at an average of 290 yards.
• Japan’s Shingo Katayama averaged 272.5 yards off the tee today in shooting 67 and is tied for fourth.
• 2003 champ Mike Weir, who averages 285 yards, good for 89th, is part of a group tied for sixth after posting 68.
• Tim Clark, who averages 280 yards off the tee, ranked 132nd, layed up and birdied all four par-5s en route to 68.
• Todd Hamilton, who averages 285 yards, ranked 80th, shot a Masters career-best 68.
• Perhaps the unlikeliest name on the leaderboard belonged to 1987 Masters champion Larry Mize, who carded a 67. The 50-year-old Champions Tour rookie, ranked 196th (271 yards) last year in his swansong season on Tour.
“There were definitely some more chances for birdies than there have been in recent years,” Mize said. “I think that’s a good thing. I think (tournament officials) do too, and that’s why they did it.”
A day before, Augusta National chairman Billy Payne said he has heard criticism that the Masters has lacked excitement the last few years, and he admitted that it stings a bit.
“It’s like when you go to a piano recital of one of your granddaughters and you hear somebody say, ‘Boy, that’s the worst kid I’ve ever seen.’ It hurts your feelings.”
Some feel the criticism was merited. Two years ago, Zach Johnson’s total of 1-over par tied the highest winning score in tournament history, and last year Trevor Immelman captured the title despite shooting a final round 3-over 75, tying the highest final round score by a champion.
Payne argued that since the latest round of significant changes to the course in 2006, the players hadn’t played the course in favorable weather.
They did Thursday. We learned that Augusta National can still be a gentle giant. Who thought that anyone could flirt with a course-record 63 this week? It didn’t hurt that the course didn’t play to its full length. Tees were moved up by as much as 10 yards on several holes, including Nos. 7, 14 and 17.
But could Thursday’s feast lead to a birdie famine? Tees likely will be pushed back, pins will be tucked in tougher locations, and the greens will get firmer. Yes, trouble still lurks at Augusta National.
“They were pretty nice to us today,” Sean O’Hair said. “But tomorrow they could just be going nuts.”