AUGUSTA, Ga. – They were short on daylight but long on length in the final group of the day in the first round of the Masters.
Correction, make that looooonnnnnnggg.
Which made for a whole bunch of fun for those who watched Alvaro Quiros, Gary Woodland, and Jhonattan Vegas shut down the festivities for the day at Augusta National. If you failed to watch, here is the gist of what took place:
• Over the final six holes, they combined for two eagles, 10 birdies, and a cumulative 12 under par.
• Quiros, the moonshot-launching Spaniard, played those six holes in 3 under to shoot 65 and tie Rory McIlroy for the lead at 7-under 65.
• Perhaps more impressively, Woodland – a powerful athlete who is turning into a golfer before our very eyes – turned a nightmare into a dream of a Masters debut. Starting at 13, Woodland went eagle, par, birdie, birdie, birdie, birdie to shoot 3 under 69, good for a share of seventh.
• Not to be outdone, Vegas, the rookie standout who won the Bob Hope Classic in January, birdied 13 and 14, then eagled 15 before a closing bogey left him at 72.
“It looks like I was playing in the Sunday afternoon leading group,” Quiros said to his caddie, Gareth Bryn Lord. Now before we continue on with the brilliant play of this final group, we pause to explain just why it is that Quiros is working for the first time with Lord – at the Masters, of all places. He had most recently employed veteran caddie Ruben Yario.
“I know it’s difficult to believe,” Quiros said, complete with what seems to be a permanent wide smile. “It’s like in soccer or football. When a team is playing bad, you cannot change the 22 players. The only thing you can change is the coach, isn’t it? In my case, it’s the same. I cannot change myself.”
Laughter filled the press building, a day of Masters golf having come to a sparkling close with a stunning round by the Spaniard. Massively long and exceedingly endearing, Quiros also had been stunningly bad at Augusta National in his two previous trips – 78-75 in 2009, 75-75 in 2010.
OK, so how did he improve 10 strokes from his previous best effort? Quiros searched for reasons why, but first had to explain that it wasn’t by design.
“My best score was 75,” he said. “I cannot be pretending to see the leaderboard. It would be stupid.”
Instead, Quiros accepted the recipe that pushed him to the top of the leaderboard. “The weather was perfect, I was playing good and I was very lucky with the putting, so I couldn’t complain.”
Nor could those in attendance who watched this final threesome run wild over Augusta’s delectable back nine, Woodland shooting 31, Quiros 32, Vegas 34. Distance-wise, Quiros averaged 309.5 to rank No. 1, Woodland was sixth at 296, and Vegas T-9 at 291.5.
“Alvaro got the hole opened up for us,” Woodland said. “It was pretty impressive to see what he was doing.”
Not that Woodland didn’t do his share, because he, too, displayed a brilliant finishing touch. It started at the famed 13th, Azalea, the incomparable 510-yard, sharp dogleg left, and in a rare occurrence, Woodland found himself perhaps 100 yards behind another player. Of course, the other player was Quiros, who pulled his tee shot left of his target, but watched his ball escape trouble and run down the fairway where he had only a 9-iron in.
“That was impressive,” Woodland said, but so was his approach: a laser 5-iron from 236 yards that set up and eagle and ignited his blitz. It also rewarded a game plan he took took into his first-ever Masters round courtesy of swing coach Randy Smith.
“He told me to attack, don’t hold back,” Woodland said. “I was happy to hear that.”
A day before, Woodland had fulfilled a dream by getting to play the back nine in a practice round with a fellow Kansan, boyhood idol Tom Watson. “He (imparted) more knowledge that I can imagine, but I’m not even sure he knows it,” Woodland said. “He would just say to me, ‘Wrong club,’ and explain things. It was a great experience.”
When he followed a birdie at the third hole with bogeys at Nos. 4 and 5, Woodland was going the wrong way. Then he really hit an obstacle: a drive into a fairway bunker at No. 8 and his second shot plugged into the face. Unable to play the shot, Woodland took a drop, received a plugged lie, and could only wedge it forward. From 131 yards, he got it up-and-down for one of the wildest bogeys he’ll ever make on a par 5.
Out in 2-over 38, Woodland felt a bit out of sorts, but the 5-iron into the 13th “calmed me down and I was able to ease it up.”
The performance showed over the final six holes as an impressive trio of young talents – Quiros is 28, Woodland and Vegas both 26 – brought the curtain down on a splendid day of fireworks. The punctuation came with both Quiros and Woodland making matching birdies at 17 and 18.
“A very nice feeling,” Quiros said. “A very special moment I have to recognize.”