Golf: Huston has the last laugh

61st US MASTERS: Woods saves his best for the back nine but champion Faldo falters
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The Independent Online
A sense of perspective, something that does not always accompany a PGA certificate, was needed on the first day of the 61st US Masters. With the Augusta National greens at their quickest, firmest and most maddening, that quality was badly needed, along with talent and fortune.

The last helped John Huston into the first-round lead when he holed his five-iron from 190 yards at the last for an eagle. Not even Tiger Woods could match that, but he did begin to live up to the hype in his first professional major when he came home in 30. Perspective helped Paul Azinger, Jose Maria Olazabal, who have both spent time out of the game due to illness and injury, and Paul Stankowski on to the leaderboard.

Huston, third in his first Masters seven years ago, hit a tree with his drive at the last and saw his ball kick 30 yards off the fairway. "Fortunately, my caddie got a good yardage and the ball somehow found the hole," he said. "I can't remember ever holing out to finish a round."

Huston's 67 was one better than Stankowski, who arrived with no expectations but spent the weekend putting on the concrete floor of his garage. Paul Azinger was the only other man to break 70, Woods's total, with Olazabal, Nick Price and Italy's Costantino Rocca on 71.

The stellar confrontation between the defending champion, Nick Faldo and Woods, started with a whimper. Faldo, who was too often above the hole and hre-putted five times on the front nine, went to the turn in 41 with Woods only a shot better. Faldo recovered two shots on the second nine for a 75, but was eclipsed by the 21-year-old's stunning inward run, only a shot outside Mark Calcavecchia's record.

Woods birdied the 10th from 15 feet, chipped in with a nine-iron at the 12th, birdied the 13th before he arrived at the par-five 15th. After a 350-yard drive, Woods hit a wedge to four feet and holed that for eagle and added another birdie at the 17th. "After the ninth I realised I was getting too long with my backswing," Woods said. "I hit so many bad shots it was nice to dig down deep and pull it through."

Azinger spent two years battling lymphatic cancer in his shoulder after winning the 1993 USPGA Championship. He returned to the tour in 1995, but his desire was missing. The key to his improved form came from his wife, Toni. "I came last in a tournament last year and was whining. Toni said not to complain to her because I wasn't practising any more.

"I wanted to live life rather than practice. Now, I want to live life and play good golf. Today was the first time since I came back that I felt nervous on the first tee here." Stankowski, in his second Masters, birdied the last two holes, the 18th in Sandy Lyle style by hitting an eight-iron from the fairway bunker to four feet. "A couple of putts I had today were like putting on my garage floor, but this is the Masters," he said. "It was fun."

With the pins tucked into corners and a breeze that dried greens more than the Augusta officials imagined, there was not going to be a repeat of Greg Norman's opening 63 a year ago, which equalled Nick Price's course record. Especially not by Norman. The Shark had sevens at two par-fives, the second and the 15th, in his 77. "I thought I played pretty good, but I put the ball in the wrong places a couple of times and you know you can't do that here."

There was carnage everywhere. Ken Green took a seven at the par-three 16th. He didn't go in the water, just five-putted. His 87 contained 44 strokes and 43 putts. Loren Roberts, the so-called "Boss of the Moss", also five-putted the first. Arnold Palmer, after recovering from prostate cancer earlier in the year, shot an 89, while his playing partner, Warren Bladon, the amateur champion, managed 10 shots less. Seve Ballesteros limped to an 81.

At the turn, when he was two over, Colin Montgomerie told his wife, Eimear: "This is not golf." She replied: "Just be patient." "That is the hardest front nine I've ever played," Monty said after joining the pack on level par which included Bernhard Langer, Fred Couples and the Swedish newcomer, Per-Ulrik Johansson.

"Every shot and every putt is a potential disaster," the Scot added. "It was scarier than anything I went on at Disney World last week. I am mentally tired, but I can still win from here. It would have been very easy to let it go. Major championship golf is meant to be this way. The rewards are great and nobody should be sympathising that we have had a hard day's work."

Lyle's glimpse of glory, page 31