After weeks of anticipation, the prestigious U.S. Masters finally got underway in Texas yesterday.
The first day was certainly engaging, as one of the most competitive Masters’ fields ever took centre stage at Augusta National. There is a sense that yesterday’s play was little more than the calm before the storm, however, with day two set to offer a clearer insight into who will prevail.
Below, we’ll review the day in further detail, while appraising the winners, the losers and the overall state of play.
Spieth Leads, But who Else Made the Early Running?
After taking the field in benign, late afternoon conditions, three-time major winner and 2015 Masters Champion Jordan Spieth dominated the headlines. Playing some immaculate approaches and demonstrating much-improved putting skills (which appeared to have deserted him earlier this season), the American recorded five consecutive birdies one back nine and ultimately shot a six-under 66 to lead the field by two.
Not even a drive into the trees on the 18th could upset his rhythm, as Spieth produced a sublime chip to ensure that the only dropped a single shot.
The 24-year old was pushed hard by his compatriot and Masters debutant Tony Finau, however, who held his nerve admirably to shoot a four-under 68. This achievement was even more impressive given that Finau had suffered a dislocated ankle during Wednesday’s par three competition, when the American was a little over exuberant while celebrating a hole-in-one.
After an ice-cool, 13-foot putt helped Finau to achieve a par at the last, he ended the day died second with Matt Kuchar, meaning that players from the U.S. dominated the top three places after day one. Below, there are seven players grouped on three-under, including joint tournament favourite Rory McIlory and the evergreen Henrik Stenson. A further five players finished two-under after the first round, meaning that the top 15 are currently separated by just four shots.
This highlights the competitive nature of this years’ field, with no single player likely to take the tournament by the scruff of the neck and dominate.
Garcia’s Nightmare on the 15th, But Woods Back from Adversity
At the other end of the spectrum, it’s fair to say that defending champion Sergio Garcia endured a nightmare day in Texas. The Spaniard, who won his maiden major at Augusta at the 74th attempt last year, managed to put five shots into the water at the challenging 15th for a 13 that ultimately left him nine-over with a score of 81 at the end of day one.
This has all but ended Garcia’s defence of the Masters crown that he fought so hard to win in 2017, as he requires a miracle to even make the cut at the end of round two. It also equaled the worst ever score for a single hole at the Masters, and the Spaniard was suitably shell-shocked as he conducted interviews with the press.
As for Tiger Woods, there’s no doubt that the four-time Masters winner also endured a difficult opening day at Augusta. The American, who had back surgery last April and was appearing at Augusta (or indeed any major) for the first time since 2015, struggled on the front nine as he followed a birdie at the third with consecutive bogeys. Further shots were dropped at the 11th and 12th, latterly after his tee shot trickled into Rae’s Creek.
Unlike Garcia, however, Woods was able to fight back and remain in contention despite struggling with his tee and approach shots. This was borne out by the fact that he only dropped one more stroke along the back nine, as Woods carded a respectable score of 73 (one-over par).
This performance was testament to Woods’ recent form and indomitable spirit, while the fact that he remains ahead of world number one Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas has raised expectations that he can win his first major since the U.S. Open back in 2008.
It’s also interesting to note that Woods has always been a slow starter at Augusta, with the 42-year old having broken 70 only once during his 21 opening Masters rounds.
How are the Pre-tournament Favourites Faring?
It was a relatively mixed day for the pre-tournament favourites, with Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy largely justifying their status with impressive rounds of golf. We should expect nothing less from the understated Spieth, of course, who won his maiden major at Augusta and finished second the following year (albeit after one of the biggest Masters meltdowns of all-time).
McIlroy will be equally pleased with his three-under 69, however, particularly given his recent form at majors and fact that he has not won a big title since the USPGA Championship at the end of 2014. Most importantly, the Ulsterman did enough to continue the momentum that he built when blowing away the field at Bay Hill last month, where he managed to hit peak form at the optimal time.
World number one Dustin Johnson endured a difficult day, however, bogeying at the last to card a two-over 73. This came after Johnson has missed last seasons’ tournament after being injured on the eve of day one, and the American seemed burdened by the pressure of knowing that he could lose his number one status with a disappointing result.
The man who is best place to topple Johnson in the rankings scarcely did any better, however, as Justin Thomas also finished two over despite being one-under after the 12th. Last years’ USPGA winner double-bogeyed at the 16th to slip above par, which will come as a disappointment for a man who arrived at Augusta in such hot form.
England’s Justin Rose, who started the tournament at odds of 14/1 and has finished second in two of the last three, fared slightly better thanks to a sterling performance on the 18th. More specifically, an 18-foot put secured him a birdie at the last, helping to finish a difficult day level and six shots off the lead.