For all Augusta’s autumn grace, nothing was gentle on the opening day of The Masters – the wretched early rain and scattered thunderstorms followed by a streak of vicious scores as players took advantage of receptive conditions. The prelude to the year’s final major, being played in November and without patrons for the first time, had orbited around Bryson DeChambeau’s distance, but while the divisive American’s day began with violent hoicks into the pine straw, a horde of contenders took advantage with exquisite approach play.
Paul Casey surged through the clearing fog with a spectacular round of 65, the Englishman’s deft putting undeterred by the softened greens. The 43-year-old has five top-10 finishes at Augusta but missed the cut last year and was ruled something of an outsider in the face of America’s hulking cohort. Yet a faultless round proved timeless, a magnificent eagle on the shorter par-5 second the highlight as he ended the day with a two-shot clubhouse lead.
A major has always eluded Casey, and his resolve will be tested by a daunting chasing pack that includes Tiger Woods, who is among the leaders despite having seldom contended since his momentous victory last April. The defending champion, so uncharacteristically sentimental since then, bit back tears at his press conference earlier this week and insisted he is “expecting to contend” come Sunday. And any murmurings over his twilight were quickly extinguished during a serene, bogey-free round of 68, in which the five-time champion rarely kicked out of first gear.
This is a newer version of Woods, unafraid to show his age, smiling at misfortune and laughing with his rivals, but his lowered guard should not be mistaken for weakness. For all those who prematurely sidelined his hopes this week, this was an imperious reminder that his shadow still looms large over the field.
So then to the princes-in-waiting, those who’ve tried and failed to banish that silhouette for the best part of a decade. Justin Thomas has long positioned himself as a potential successor and tore through the late afternoon sunshine, racing to five-under-par before the dusk brought an early halt to his progress. He was one of 45 players forced off the course before completing their rounds as the daylight faded.
Xander Shauffele, a runner-up last year chasing a seemingly inevitable maiden major, rallied from a brief mid-round collapse to also finish at five-under-par with an impressive 67.
Nobody’s arrival at Augusta had stirred quite so much anticipation as DeChambeau, though. The US Open champion and polarising genius, whose scientific approach is either transforming or train-wrecking the game, depending on which side of the rail you stand. Hysteria centred around his attempts to bludgeon the course into submission this week with a series of gunslinging drives. Instead, his round was a theatre of volatility, traipsing through the woods, clattering among branches and scouring bushes.
The tantalising par-5 13th proved his early downfall – with groups starting off both the first and 10th tees this year – as a double-bogey threatened an existential crisis, but DeChambeau hung in admirably. Eventually, for all his ballast, a subtler touch emerged and a two-under-par 70 was nothing to be scoffed at, even if it fell short of his own lofty predictions.
Playing in the same group, Jon Rahm matched DeChambeau blow-for-blow, regularly veering from spectacular to self-implosion. The Spaniard began with back-to-back bogeys but a thrilling turn saw him surge towards the top of the leaderboard and he remains firmly among the favourites.
The contrast with Louis Oosthuizen, the final member of that three-ball, couldn’t have been more pronounced. The South African, all rhythm and elegance, struck the ball high and sweet but glided happily under the radar, cruising to a smooth 68.
That score was matched by Lee Westwood, another of England’s unfancied older guard. The 47-year-old had missed the last two editions of the Masters but showed scarce signs of rust, racing to five-under and an outright lead early on. Although his momentum faded down the stretch, only one bogey chipped away at his total and he sits among a fearsome cluster of contenders, which also includes former champions Patrick Reed and Adam Scott.
So while the day began with fears of DeChambeau’s distance and torrential weather, it ended in a rain of birdies and wave of red. Fifty players in total finished under-par as Augusta’s teeth were blunted, and for all the strange circumstances surrounding this year’s tournament, it remains typically poised. Three more days of excitement, wild twists of fate, and battles between old favourites and young pretenders awaits.
Leaderboard – if round one completed (US unless stated)
-7 Paul Casey (Eng)
-5 Xander Schauffele, Webb Simpson
-4 Tiger Woods, Hideki Matsuyama (Jpn), Louis Oosthuizen (Rsa), Patrick Reed, Lee Westwood (Eng)
-3 Tony Finau, Jazz Janewattananond (Tha), Jon Rahm (Spa), Matt Wallace (Eng)
-2 Jason Day (Aus), Marc Leishman (Aus), Bryson DeChambeau, Cheng-Tsung Pan (Tai), Matt Kuchar, Larry Mize, Si Woo Kim (Kor)
-1 Scottie Scheffler, Jason Kokrak, Jimmy Walker, Kevin Kisner, Brandt Snedeker, Henrik Stenson (Swe), Charles Howell III, Mike Weir (Can)
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