AUGUSTA, Ga. -- As Australian Adam Scott stood on the first tee Thursday morning in his opening round as the defending Masters champion, he felt none of the knee-knocking, nerve-jangling jitters he’d always experienced in each of his dozen previous appearances at Augusta National.
“I always said the first few holes of the Masters is the most nervous I ever get on a golf course,” Scott said afterward. “But having won last year, in some ways it’s taken a little pressure off me, and I kind of felt like what was the worst that can happen? I’m still going to be Masters champion.”
His butterfly-free play in the first round clearly demonstrated the sort of inner calm he said he experienced all day. With one exception, a ball that landed in the water short of the 12th greenand led to a double bogey, Scott efficiently got himself in position to entertain the notion of becoming the first repeat winner here since Tiger Woods in 2001 and 2002.
With a 3-under-par 69, matching his first and last round scores from a year ago, Scott found himself only a shot off the lead of 4-under 68 posted by Bill Haas a few groups in front of him. Scott was tied for second with late-finishing Bubba Watson, the 2012 champion, and South African Louis Oosthuizen, the man Watson beat in a playoff that year.
By early evening, seven players, including three-time tour winner Jimmy Walker, were tied for fifth at 2-under 70. On a spectacular sun-splashed spring day, the golf course was starting to play just the way it was designed — fast and firm with precarious pin placements all around.
Other pretournament favorites also had under-par numbers, including Irishman Rory McIlroy, three-time tour winner Jimmy Walker and 20-year-old Jordan Spieth, all in a group of eight at 71. And 54-year-old Fred Couples had 71 as well, the fifth consecutive year he has been at par or lower in the first round.
“Can a 50-year-old win here?” Couples wondered out loud. “I think so. I’m one of them. It’s nice to see Adam and Rory because if they play well, I can’t beat them.
“But if I play well, I can compete with them. And maybe with nine holes to go, I hit four unbelievable shots and do something good. But that hasn’t happened yet.”
Haas is making his fifth start in this first major championship of the season and admitted “you still get nervous on that first tee. Not nervous, anxious. I was more nervous the first year, and you get more fired up to go.”
Those emotions may well have led to a first-hole bogey for Haas, followed by a birdie at No. 2 with a 15-foot putt. He bogeyed the 17th but also followed that up with the last of the six birdies on his card to take that one-shot lead, his first after any round in his previous four Masters.
Haas comes from golf royalty. His uncle, Bob Goalby, won the Masters in 1968 and his father, Jay Haas, was a nine-time PGA Tour winner who played in 22 events at Augusta National, with a best finish a tie for third in 1995. Bill Haas was a budding teenage golfing prodigy on the grounds that afternoon and still remembers many of the shots his father hit that final Sunday.
“I never remember thinking, ‘Man, I wish I could hit this shot for my dad,’ ” he said. “But I do know now that there’s some times I wish my dad could hit this shot for me.”
Scott surely was wishing for a mulligan after he hit his tee shot at the 155-yard 12th, the course’s signature hole.
He had marched over from the 11th green accompanied by a prolonged standing ovation from the massive crowds all around for one of the most popular players in golf.
“The memory that will stick with me forever [Thursday] was walking up to the 12th tee and everyone getting out of their seats as I approached there,” Scott said. “But then I went and hit it in the water.”
Scott pulled out a 9-iron on a hole with a difficult back-right pin and said he “lost a little focus and didn’t commit fully” on a shot that plunked into Rae’s Creek in front. He dropped his third shot 60 yards from the flag, pitched over the water to within five feet, and then missed the bogey putt for the only blemish on a card that included five birdies. He said afterward it was the first time he’d ever splashed a shot at the devilish little hole.
“I fully expected to play a solid round of golf,” Scott said. “Getting off to a good start in a major is huge because they’re the hardest tournaments to kind of chase.
“Birdies aren’t that easy to come by at majors, and if you’re six back, five back, 10 back after the first round, it’s a hard three days in front of you to get it back. You almost have to play flawless.”
Phil Mickelson, a three-time champion, will have to do just that to get back into contention for his fourth green jacket. He had a disastrous triple bogey at No. 7 after three putting from eight feet, then went bogey, double bogey at 14 and 15 and finished with 76, his worst first round since 2007.
“It wasn’t the best day for me [Thursday],” Mickelson said afterward. “I’ve got a lot of work to do to make the cut. I’ve got some issues. I actually played well but made some mental errors, misjudged some shots. It’s disappointing for sure. I threw away a lot of shots.”