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Archive for Friday, April 6, 2007

Nothing worth yelling about

Few birdies means few roars on opening day of Masters

April 6, 2007

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— Augusta National is called the "cathedral of golf," and it sure sounded like one Thursday.

Gone were those roars that resonate along Amen Corner, as much a part of the Masters as the blazing colors of spring and the red numbers under par on the leaderboard. Then again, there were not a lot of birdies to cheer.

This was a day the Masters went mute.

"Strangely quiet," David Howell of England said.

It wasn't a total drag, even with Tiger Woods making bogey on the last two holes for a 73, or defending champion Phil Mickelson having to rally for a 76, his worst start at the Masters in 10 years.

Justin Rose, back at the Masters for the first time since he was a 36-hole leader three years ago, did remarkably well to keep bogeys off his card on his way to a 3-under 69, leaving him tied for the lead with Masters rookie Brett Wetterich. It was the highest score to lead the first round of the Masters in eight years, which also was the last time Augusta National was firm, fast and scary.

Only nine players managed to break par, the result of a course that has grown 500 yards and breezy, brittle conditions that kept even the best players in the world on the defensive from the opening tee shot to the final putt.

"I would have liked to have made a birdie," Dean Wilson said after a 73. "But when you look up and no one else is doing it, it gives me a boost. I didn't hear the roars Augusta National is famous for."

Howell and David Toms were at 70.

Toms complained last year that Masters rules were so strict that players feel as though they have to walk on egg shells. If that were the case Thursday, the sound might have been deafening. Add that Toms was in the final group, and it seemed as though he was squeezing in a late nine at the local municipal course.

"For the most part, it was a real calm day," he said.

The loudest cheers might have been for Arnold Palmer. He was back in the Masters after a two-year absence, this time to hit the ceremonial opening tee shot.

Lucky for him, he didn't have to hit another shot.

Because this sure didn't resemble the Masters of recent years.

"We wish for dry, firm, fast conditions, and the scoring average of about 76," Howell said. "Be careful what you wish for is the answer there. We all know this course is going to play really tough when it's dry and firm and fast. It's that beautiful mix between the most beautiful place in the world to play golf, and also the most difficult."

The only other players to break par were Rich Beem, Tim Clark, J.J. Henry, Zach Johnson and Augusta resident Vaughn Taylor at 71. The group at even-par 72 included Henrik Stenson and Davis Love III.

All of them had good shots to celebrate, but not many.

"I got a lucky bounce on the sixth where my tee shot kicked in to a foot, which made the crowd cheer a little bit," Stenson said.

Beem forgot to factor in the wind on the par-5 13th, which he said would have caused him to lay up. Instead, he hit 5-wood into about 20 feet and made the putt for eagle.

"I think it woke up a few people," he said.

A dozen players couldn't break 80. The average score was 76.187, the highest for a first round in four years.

"It's hard. And when you start playing defensively, it plays harder," Steve Stricker said after a 77. "It's one shot after another where you're up against it. You're nervous on every shot."

Rose, who hadn't played in five weeks while taking care of a sore back, put together the most remarkable round because it contained no bogeys. He hit a wedge to tap-in range at No. 3, holed a bunker shot on No. 5 and rolled in a 15-foot birdie from the fringe on No. 14.

"That's exciting to go bogey-free on any course on any day," Rose said. "But first round at Augusta on a day where obviously the scores are pretty high makes it a very pleasing round. Yeah, one that I'm very happy with, for sure."

Wetterich can't relate to any of this as an Augusta National rookie. His experience comes from practice rounds, especially one with south Florida neighbor Raymond Floyd, the 1976 Masters champion.

"I thought it was a good test of golf out there," Wetterich said. "To me, they don't have to do any changes."

For the longest time, it looked as though Woods might go through the day without a birdie. His best putts were for par - one was for bogey on the seventh hole - until he hit a sand wedge into 4 feet for birdie on the 13th, and reached the par-5 15th in two for another one. Suddenly, he was 1 under and starting to challenge the leaders.

Then came a tee shot in the trees on the 17th, and an approach into the bunker on the 18th, and the streak was alive - Woods has never broken 70 in the first round at the Masters, despite winning four of them.

"I threw away a good round of golf," Woods said.

Still, it wasn't hard to find some encouragement. Not many had a good round to throw away.

"You're not going to go low," Woods said. "Low is only 69 today. That's some pretty good playing."

Ernie Els opened with a double bogey, then took bogey on the par-5 second. He shot 42 on the front nine. U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy was some 50 yards in front of the green on No. 2 when he hit wedge long into a bunker, then hit that shot back toward the fairway, finally pitched up to about 8 feet and three-putted for an 8. He also took a double bogey on the par-3 12th, but still managed a 75.

"You feel like the course is going to get you somewhere," Ben Crenshaw said after a 76. "It doesn't matter who you are."

It got Mickelson just about everywhere.

Bidding to become only the fourth repeat winner at the Masters, he was even par through three holes and, after missing the green on the par-3 fourth, chipped to 4 feet. But he missed that putt, and it spiraled out of control from there. A muffed chip on the fifth led to double bogey, and he dropped shots on each of the next two holes.

Mickelson shot 40 on the front, and it got worse before it got better. Birdies on the 15th and 16th, and scrambling pars on the final two holes put him at 76.

"Even par is going to be in the hunt tomorrow," he said. "If I can go out there and shoot a solid 68, I'm in contention."

He made it sound so simple. The course was anything but that on Thursday, and it doesn't figure to get any easier. Along with a dry forecast, the temperatures are supposed to get much cooler.

And if that's the case, the course will only get faster.

"The golf course is winning right now," Billy Mayfair said after a 76. "I expect it will probably win this week."

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