Tiger Woods dispelled any hint of romanticism about his ambitions at Augusta with a blunt and precise, if not spectacular, two-under-par 70 on the opening day of the Masters, as Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau took command of the overnight leaderboard.
For a while, as the 43-year-old surged into a share of the lead, there had been a prevailing sense that the patrons may bear witness to a rare glimpse of the past. A snaking 25-foot putt for birdie on the 14th evoking nostalgia as he punched the sky and sent airwaves rippling across the course. The crowd of devotees blew behind his every step before eventually the mask slipped and the man himself ran out of wind.
A bogey on the 17th saw Woods end one shy of the clubhouse lead – although that gap was later extended to four by Koepka and DeChambeau - in a mishap that served to remind us that we can never quite relive those heady days. This was the same Woods who conquered four spinal fusion surgeries to come within grasping distance at The Open and the US PGA last year, but lacked the familiar ruthless edge to end an 11-year major-less streak. The Woods whose desire has always remained great in his comeback, but whose body has rarely been able to match it.
But the late blunder will leave little lasting effect, and lurking in that familiar stalking position just in the sight and subconscious of the leaders, it’s hard to ignore the sense of added conviction that Woods sourced from his iconic victory at the Tour Championship in September. And, even more so, that it won’t at least to some extent be displayed over the weekend.
“That was a grind, but I feel very good. I played well today, hit a lot of good shots,” Woods said afterwards. “If I missed, I missed in the correct spot. I had simpler up-and-downs because of that. I missed a few [putts] for sure, misread a couple and hit a bad one at six. I’ve shot this number and won before so hopefully I can do it again.”
Instead, it would be his cold and aloof successor, Brooks Koepka who swum beneath the tides again to move into the lead. The three-time major champion had started late in the day, long in the leaders’ shade and appeared to offer little to fluster them after a streak of seven pars to close the front-nine.
But after making the turn, the brawny and sullen 28-year-old fizzed into life, birdieing four in a row, each without a glint of emotion to finish with a six-under-par 66. It was Koepka distilled to his steeliest edge. The player who saw out wire-to-wire victories as a matter of course before a recent slump in form and relishes in rising to an occasion, not only to attain glory for himself, but also to relieve it from others. It is that Koepka, the self-proclaimed “most underrated three-time major champion in history”, slighted once again at being overlooked as a key contender this week, whose name at the top of this leaderboard leaves the greatest weight.
For Rory McIlory, it was a day of wavering success, where he could never quite tune himself to the finest of degrees required by Augusta. The feng shui he has proudly paraded in the build-up to this event and his absence of need to complete his Grand Slam appeared to hurl its belongings about the room as soon as he boarded the first-tee. With Woods sizing up his approach in the group ahead, McIlroy’s ball barrelled into the canopy to the right of the fairway and embedded in the pine straw from where an opening bogey would follow.
But it was to the Northern Irishman’s testament and the iron resilience that he has always shouldered – no matter how enveloped in this newfound mindfulness – that allowed him to recover his hopes of contention. He scrambled to a 36 at the turn to stay afoot and recovered from back-to-back bogeys on the 10th and 11th which threatened to leave him reeling and rocked. Another brace of dropped shots on 17 and 18 left a turbulent round with a different context, but there are positives to gleam in the way he handled this early adversity.
A one-over-par finish leaves him clawing at daylight, but is by no stretch out of reach, and after shaking the frustrations of bogeying the 18th, the casting emotion may be one of relief rather than pain.
“I made five birdies, that wasn’t the problem,” McIlroy said. “I just made too many mistakes and that was the problem. And I’m making mistakes from pretty simple positions, just off the side of the green, 17 and 18 being prime examples of that.”
Instead, it was Ian Poulter, another veteran of the Tour, just 12 days Woods’ junior and in the midsts of a renaissance, who spearheaded British hopes, finishing two shots back with a fine 68 on a day when his close friends Justin Rose and Paul Casey – as well as past champion Jordan Spieth – found themselves in danger of missing the weekend.
Leading scores after day one
-6 B DeChambeau (US), B Koepka (US)
-5 P Mickelson (US)
-4 I Poulter (Eng), D Johnson (US)
-3 K Aphibarnrat (Thai), J Harding (SA), K Kisner (US), A Scott (Aus), J Rahm (Spa)
-2 L Bjerregaard (Den), C Conners (Can), R Fowler (US), JB Holmes (US), P Kizzire (US), F Molinari (Ita), C Smith (Aus), G Woodland (US), T Woods (US), J Day (Aus).
Day two tee-times (BST)
1.30pm A Lyle (Scot), M Kim, P Kizzire.
1.41 T Immelman (SA), M Kaymer (Ger), *D Bling.
1.52 L Mize, J Walker, S Cink.
2.03 J M Olazábal (Sp), K Na, T Olesen (Den).
2.14 B Langer (Ger), M Wallace (Eng), *Á Ortiz (Mex).
2.25 A Noren (Swe), K Bradley, M Fitzpatrick (Eng).
2.36 V Singh (Fij), B Horschel, *J Rebula (SA).
2.47 K Kisner, K Aphibarnrat (Thai), S Imahira (Japan).
2.59 Z Johnson, I Poulter (Eng), M Kuchar.
3.09 F Molinari (It), R Cabrera Bello (Sp), T Hatton (Eng).
3.31 B Watson, P Cantlay, S Kodaira (Japan).
3.42 D Johnson, B DeChambeau, J Day (Aus).
3.53 P Mickelson, J Rose (Eng), J Thomas.
4.04 J Spieth, P Casey (Eng), B Koepka.
4.15 A Landry, A Long, C Conners (Can).
4.26 I Woosnam (Wales), K Mitchell, K Tway.
4.37 M Weir (Can), S Lowry (Ire), K O’Connell*.
4.48 A Cabrera (Arg) A Wise, J Harding (SA).
4.59 D Willett (Eng), B Snedeker, T Kanaya (Japan)*.
5.10 F Couples, Kim Si-woo (S Kor), JB Holmes.
5.32 B Grace (SA), E Grillo (Arg), L Bjerregaard (Den).
5.43 C Schwartzel (SA), C Howell III, E Pepperell (Eng).
5.54 S Garcia (Sp), T Finau, H Stenson (Swe).
6.05 A Scott (Aus), H Matsuyama (Japan), K Stanley.
6.16 P Reed, W Simpson, V Hovland (Nor)*
6.27 C Hoffman, L Oosthuizen (SA), M Leishman (Aus).
6.38 T Fleetwood (Eng), X Schauffele, G Woodland.
6.49 T Woods, Li Haotong (China), J Rahm (Sp).
7.00 R McIlroy (N Ire), R Fowler, C Smith (Aus).
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies