AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Tiger Woods came to Augusta National this week proclaiming: “I feel comfortable with every aspect of my game.”
That’s precisely how it appeared in the opening round of the Masters on Thursday when, except for consecutive missed six-foot putts on his back nine, the No. 1 player in the world kept himself very much in the merry mix to contend for a fifth title and 15th major championship victory overall.
With a 2-under-par 70, Woods matched the same score he posted in the first round of three of his four Masters triumphs. And when this muggy, overcast day of sublime scoring conditions had ended, Woods was a mere four shots off the lead of 6-under 66 shared by Spaniard Sergio Garcia, still seeking his first career major, and Marc Leishman, attempting to become the first Australian to win a coveted green jacket.
“It was a good day, a solid day,” Woods said, despite needing 30 putts to get around. “I thought the greens were a little bit tough in the sense that they just didn’t have the sheen to them, they didn’t have the roll out. A couple of putts, we were talking about it in our group, just weren’t that fast. … It’s a good start. I’m only four back, and I’m right there.”
Leishman, playing only his second Masters, had the lowest score among the morning groupings when he birdied five of the first seven holes on the back nine, including four in a row starting at No. 13. The 29-year-old had only played two previous official Masters rounds, missing the cut in his only other appearance in 2010.
“The first time I was here, I was like a deer in the headlights,” Leishman said. “I found myself looking around a little bit too much and not concentrating on getting the ball in the hole. To be sitting here is pretty cool. But it’s only Thursday afternoon, so a lot of golf to play.”
Garcia had a bogey-free round that included birdies on two of his first three holes, a 4-under 32 on the front nine and several crucial par saves on the back nine to produce his splendid score, matching his lowest ever round in this event. Now 33, Garcia has 15 top-10 finishes in majors since he finished second in the 1999 PGA Championship but has never been able to hoist a trophy.
“It’s obviously not my most favorite place, but we try to enjoy it as much as we can each time we come here,” said Garcia, with only two top-10 finishes in 14 previous starts here. “Sometimes it comes out better than others, but [Thursday] was one of those good days, and let’s enjoy it while it lasts.”
There were other thoroughly enjoyable developments this day.
Yes, once again that was 53-year-old Fred Couples defying his geriatric status by shooting a 68 that left him two shots off the lead in a six-way tie for fourth. Couples was one behind fellow American Dustin Johnson, who had his lowest round in the Masters, a 67 that placed him alone in third place.
Couples, the 1992 champion, has had similar early teases since turning 50, leading this tournament in 2012 after 36 holes before fading to a tie for 12th place on the weekend. But he was obviously delighted to be back in the Masters conversation once again despite playing most of his golf these days on the Champions Tour.
“I get fired up,” Couples said of his love affair with Augusta National. “But I have to drive it really well. I did that well, and it just makes the course easier for me. … I’m going to play this tournament until I really don’t think I can win. I don’t want to walk around and get in everyone’s way, shoot a bad score and not enjoy it. So how long? I would say another 25 years of this.”
Also still very much in contention were two other big-time names. Phil Mickelson, a three-time Masters winner, had a run of four birdies in five back-nine holes to salvage a 71 that left him five behind and tied for 23rd place. And Rory McIlroy, No.2 in the world rankings and a two-time major winner, came in with an even par 72 and was tied for 34th.
And the low amateur among six in the field was also the youngest player ever to participate in this event — 14-year-old Tianlang Guan, an eighth-grader from China who qualified by winning the fourth annual Asia Pacific Amateur in November. There was nothing amateurish about his finish on Augusta National’s famous 465-yard 18th when he sank a left-to-right breaking 20-foot putt from just off the fringe for one last birdie and a round of 73.
His playing partner, 61-year-old two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw, saw it all up close and personal and was mostly in awe.
“He played about four of the most beautiful delicate pitches you’ve ever seen,” Crenshaw said. “I’m telling you he played like a veteran today. He stays well within himself. He’s very confident and obviously beautiful hands. His thought process never got rushed. Very patient. Very, very, very impressive.”