AUGUSTA, Ga. — What you need to know about Thursday at Augusta National isn’t necessarily who leads — Charley Hoffman, and we’ll get to that, because it’s worth it — but what he endured to achieve that status. Pine needles performed cartwheels across fairways. Sand tried, and succeeded, to escape bunkers. Balls were marked, then replaced, then motored across greens as if under radio control. Trees bent. Players broke.
What you need to know came from the 57-year-old mouth of Fred Couples, who said the following: “I’ve never seen it like this.”
What does he know? He’s only played 119 competitive rounds here, spanning the past 32 Masters.
We can quibble over the veracity of Couples’s assessment, but we can’t with this: the first round of the 81st Masters tournament became a five-hour game of guess the gust. The unquestioned winner was Hoffman, who somehow managed five birdies in his last seven holes to complete a stunning 7-under 65 — four shots clear of the next-best round, that turned in by journeyman Will McGirt, another on a shortlist of the day’s winners.
But in a 93-player field, only 11 broke par. The field average: Nearly 3 over. So there were more losers than winners. Significantly more.
“It’s one of those rounds where you could shoot your way out of the golf tournament pretty quick,” Hoffman said. “ … It blew all day. I don’t think it laid down any.”
[Boswell: Only Dustin Johnson could miss his shot at a green jacket because of socks]
There were those who took on the wind — wind about which a Texas prairie would proudly boast — and found water instead. There were those who figured they had gauged a gust properly, only to watch the breeze grab their shots and fling them waywardly — 15 yards further than expected, 15 yards shorter. Always something.
“You’re trying to hit these small targets, and the wind’s going from 15 to 20 to 40” mph, said Kevin Kisner, who shot 74. “It’s just incredible trying to hit those numbers … Felt like British Open gusts.”
So much of the Masters is best presented as an oral history, stories witnessed in person and passed down from generation to generation. Thursday is now part of it. Gather round the fire pit, then, because you’ll need to stay warm given the chill, and you’ll want to hear the tales, so many of them troubling.
“I had a ball that was three feet from the hole,” said Adam Scott, who won this tournament in 2013. “I’d marked it, put it back, and it rolled to 12 feet.”
That was at 14. He missed the 12-footer, and shot 76.
“If you catch the wrong gust at the wrong time, then you look stupid,” said Thomas Pieters, who played the first 10 holes in 5 under, the last eight in 5 over. “Like I did on 12.”
[Palmer absent, but very present for ceremonial tee shot]
That was where Pieters, leading the tournament, rinsed his 8-iron in Rae’s Creek, and made the first of his two double bogeys.
“I had a putt that was just left-to-right, across the slope,” said former U.S. Open champ Justin Rose. “And a gust of wind hit it mid-putt, and then it caught like a little downslope four foot passed the hole — and then went 10 feet by.”
That was at the third, where Rose made bogey — a blemish on an otherwise excellent 71.
“I didn’t even think he was going to pull the trigger,” said former world No. 1 Jason Day of his playing partner, Brandt Snedeker, who stood over the tee shot at the par-3 12th for almost five minutes. “He turned around and said, ‘Does anyone else want to hit this shot?’ That’s the feeling.”
Snedeker finally did. And he somehow made his par.
“I was stuck in the 15-is-a-birdie-hole mentality,” said Jordan Spieth, the 2015 champion.
On Thursday, the par-5 15th played into the wind, and instead of being reachable in two shots was a challenge to hold the green. Spieth’s war story from the first round will include 17 holes he played in 1-under, and 15, where he spun a pitching wedge back into the water, then hit his next one through the green, and eventually managed a quadruple-bogey 9 en route to a 3-over 75, the worst of his 13 career rounds at the Masters.
All of this made for significant carnage, for sure, and left some in the field bleary-eyed as they finished. But there was, too, room for some sadism.
“I love it,” said Phil Mickelson, who owns three green jackets and put himself in contention for a fourth with a 71. “I love it around here, especially, because the wind is going to magnify your misses and a lot of the guys that aren’t familiar with this course and where you can go to on certain holes for certain pins will miss in the wrong spot and end up making big numbers.”
[Hurley III gets first Masters birdie on third hole]
Hoffman managed to avoid anything that even approached a big number. His only two bogeys of the day came at the third and the fifth, both three-putts, but they sandwiched a birdie at the par-3 fourth. He found the water at 13, but got up and down to save par. When his approach at 18 hit a bank at the side of a bunker, the fact that he owned the day — apparent even before that moment — became obvious to the entire field. Instead of popping up into the sand, it glanced off sideways and propelled it to 15 feet below the hole.
What amounted for frustration for Hoffman would have been elation for the rest of the field: His putt for what would have been his fifth straight birdie finished a ball to the right of the hole. Instead, he tapped in, and slapped hands with his caddie, smiling broadly — leading the Masters, and by about a mile.
“Am I going to sleep perfect?” he asked. “Probably not.”
One reason: Augusta, as we know it, isn’t due to return to normal for Friday’s second round. “We have another day of it tomorrow,” Spieth said. So keep guessing — about the wind, about the leader board. And check back Friday evening. There could be a few more tales to tell.