Weather warning signs were up, warm and balmy winds were picking up, and the race to finish Round 1 of the 77th Masters was like an Alydar-Affirmed duel down the stretch.
Yet as much as swiftness was of the essence, the closing holes demand great care, so it was no time to get sloppy. That’s why a healthy list of notable names who packed the back end of the tee sheet could smile widely and offer a sigh of relief.
They had held it together.
No one more so than the inimitable one from Castellon, Spain, Sergio Garcia. When last seen on the grounds of Augusta National last April, Garcia was bemoaning a 75-71 weekend that left him T-12 and talking that he was destined to never win a major.
But after making a brilliant up-and-down at the par-4 17th to help cement a bogey-free 66 and get into a share of the lead, the 33-year-old smiled. And, yes, he remembered that it wasn’t this way a year ago.
“Obviously, it’s not my most favorite place,” he said. “But you know, we try to enjoy it as much as we can each time.”
Clearly, this one was easy to enjoy, given that he matched his best Masters score. He hadn’t shot 66 since Round 4 in 2004. So much Augusta heartache had taken place since then – three missed cuts, four finishes at 35th or worse, and the infamous muttering last year.
What was it, something about “playing for second” is the best he can hope for here?
Adam Scott was asked about that and he could only smile politely and laugh. “Hopefully, he’s doing that this weekend,” he said.
Then the cool and composed Aussie, who had shot a tidy 69 alongside Garcia, said that clearly what the Spaniard had said a year ago was “a throwaway line,” and was born out of frustration. The majors can do it.
But on this day, Garcia and Scott had held it together down the stretch, even while rushing to the finish line amid swirling winds and darkening clouds. The forecast coming into the day had called for a late-afternoon switch in the weather – so those at the back, the guys teeing off after 12:30 p.m., certainly knew there was a chance they wouldn’t finish.
As fate would have it, however, the weather held off. Scott, whose only bogey of the day had come at the par-5 second, where he snapped his driver left and into a hazard, nodded his approval.
“I’m just happy we finished,” he said, moments after he two-putted from 25 feet just off the back fringe. “But it was beautiful; it doesn’t get any better (for scoring) than today.”
After Garcia and Scott finished the 18th, Group 27 came in with Dustin Johnson shooting 67 and Fred Couples 68. In Group 29, Phil Mickelson nearly erased a bogey at 17 with a scintillating birdie at 18, except that an 18-footer on a beautiful left-to-right roll snapped hard right at the last second. He had to settle for a 71.
Still, considering that he had been 2-over through 11, the left-hander was content with the way he had come back and held things together.
Actually, so, too, was Keegan Bradley, playing in the penultimate group alongside Rory McIlroy and Freddie Jacobson. Back-to-back bogeys midway through his front had Bradley 2 over through 10. He then made one of eight birdies at the par-4 11th and seemingly was ready to ignite some momentum.
On this day, though, Bradley couldn’t sustain anything positive. He hit into Rae’s Creek short of the 13th green, went into the hazard and salvaged par with a gutsy play out of the water. He had a short iron into 15 but couldn’t take advantage. Then at 18 he drove it miles right, so wide, in fact, that Bradley thought of playing his second shot up the 10th fairway. Instead, he hit a low punch-out, then hit a 160-yard approach to 12 feet. He somehow coaxed the slick, right-to-left putt just inside the back door and while it was a 1-over 73, the save sure left a better taste in his mouth.
As all of these late finishers signed cards and talked to family, friends, and media, thunder erupted and clouds darkened even more. Yet, Garcia talked of a round that seemed to reward “his lower expectations.” Scott said “I played as I expected to.” Mickelson smiled the vintage Mickelson smile. McIlroy suggested his 72 had some highlights. Bradley shook hands with his father. And Matt Kuchar sashayed to the finish line in the final group, his big grin and friendly wave proof that his 4-under 68 had made it a great day.
Even a touch or two greater for those at the back of the tee sheet, it seems, because in a rush to get things done, they hadn’t thrown away any shots.