Masters 2017: Charley Hoffman leads with 65 amid unpredictable conditions

Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Masters 2017: Charley Hoffman leads with 65 amid unpredictable conditions

PGA Tour

Masters 2017: Charley Hoffman leads with 65 amid unpredictable conditions

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AUGUSTA, Ga. – The shifting sands of Augusta National made opening day a test of survival for everyone but leader Charley Hoffman. Fred Couples, who first played the Masters in 1983, said he’s never seen the course play quite like it did on Thursday, where it was catch the right gust or bust.

“There’s no respite out there,” said Justin Rose. “Even simple tap-ins aren’t simple.”

How then did Hoffman make it look so easy?

“I step on this property and it just feels special,” said Hoffman, who bolted away from the field April 6 with a 7-under 65. “It fits my eye off the tee and on the greens.”

Two years ago, Hoffman shot 67-68 in the first two rounds at Augusta and was in solo second heading into the weekend. He ultimately tied for ninth, 10 strokes behind winner Jordan Spieth. It remains Hoffman’s lone top-10 finish at a major.

“I hit the ball as good as Jordan or anyone else that week,” said Hoffman. “I just didn’t make as many putts.”

Take away the injured Dustin Johnson, and the next five players in the world combined for nine birdies, matching the peerless Hoffman.

Hoffman’s superb 65 included birdies on all four par 3s. The 40-year-old leads William McGirt by four, narrowly missing Craig Wood’s record of largest first-round lead (five strokes) set in 1941. Wood went on to win the tournament.

“A few weeks back I sort of sat back on a week off and asked some people what I needed to do better, and asked myself what I needed to do better,” said Hoffman. “I think I just needed to believe a little bit more.”

At the start of the day, Jack Nicklaus predicted a dozen players would break par. He missed it by one.

Adam Scott, who was not among the 11 in red numbers, marked his ball 3 feet from the hole on the 14th. He replaced it, and then watched it roll away from the hole to 12 feet. Scott called the conditions, which saw wind gusts up to 40 mph, “borderline.”

“I’m sure if (the greens) had been usual tournament speed it would have been unplayable,” said Scott, who posted a 3-over 75.

Even Johnson, winner of his last three starts, proved as unpredictable as the swirling wind. The World No. 1 walked off the practice putting green and withdrew moments before his 2:03 p.m. tee time, sending fantasy lineups into a tailspin.

Johnson slipped on the stairs of his rental home in his socks Wednesday evening and landed on the left side of his lower back. His left elbow was swollen and bruised, and after a night of treatment, found he could only swing the club at 70 percent.

The hardest part, Johnson said, is that he’s fairly certainly he’ll be fine by the weekend.

“Obviously my heart is in it and wants to play,” he said. “The more I thought about it, I just wasn’t going to have any chance.”

While everything went wrong for golf’s heavyweight, it was a dream start for 37-year-old McGirt, a Masters first-timer who won last year’s Memorial Tournament. McGirt tracked down Nicklaus on Tuesday while taking family pictures near the clubhouse.

“He just told me to play smart and play within myself,” said McGirt. “He says, ‘If you can win at my place, you can win here.’ ”

Thomas Pieters, another Masters rookie, got it to 5 under under until he hit Amen Corner. On the heels of a bogey on the 11th, Pieters hit 8-iron into the middle of the Rae’s Creek on No. 12, carding a double.

“If you catch the wrong gust at the wrong time, then you look stupid,” said Pieters. “Like I did on 12.”

Pieters, who shot even par, backed off shots as many as five times.

On a day when patrons had to protect themselves from runaway sand, shots could change 10 to 15 yards in a matter of seconds.

“This place is always about picking the shots that you need to hit,” said Paul Casey. “Today was just about picking the time.”

The par-5 15th proved particularly tricky. Scott hit a 4-iron to lay up and said playing competitor Kevin Kisner, who was standing ahead in the fairway, watched Scott’s ball fly 15 yards backward at the peak of its flight.

The third shot wasn’t any easier.

“That wedge shot on 15, who knows what’s going to happen,” said Kisner, who carded a 74. “I had 97 (to the hole) or something like that. Hit a pitching wedge, which is a 135-yard club for me, so that kind of gives you an idea.”

It was the 15th that derailed Jordan Spieth, who carded a quadruple-bogey nine after hitting his third shot in the water and his fifth over the green. Spieth opened with a 3-over 75.

For the record, he parred No. 12.

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