Augusta, Ga. The flair of Rory McIlroy. The sheer power of Alvaro Quiros. These are but two of the fresh faces in golf who offered more evidence Thursday at the Masters that a new generation is on the way.
And that’s only going to make it tougher on Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods.
The 21-year-old McIlroy, who opened with a 63 at St. Andrews last summer in the British Open, again delivered exquisite shots on one of golf’s biggest stages for a 7-under 65. It was such a clean round that he didn’t make a bogey and was left wondering how much lower he could have gone if not for missing five birdie chances inside 10 feet.
“It wasn’t maybe as exclusive or spectacular as the 63 at St. Andrews,” he said. “But it was very solid from start to finish.”
Then came Quiros, a 28-year-old Spaniard whom many consider the longest hitter in the game. Blasting away on a course where he had never shot better than 75, he spun an approach back to three feet on the 18th hole to catch McIlroy atop the leaderboard.
They had a two-shot lead over a pair of South Koreans, former PGA champion Y.E. Yang and K.J. Choi.
Quiros was in the final group of the day, and it was as explosive as there is in the game. He was joined by former Kansas University golfer Gary Woodland and Jhonattan Vegas, two Augusta newcomers who qualified in recent months with their first PGA Tour win — more examples of a shift toward youth, two players built more for football and basketball than for golf.
They all bash it, and did they ever put on a show.
They combined to make 10 birdies and two eagles over the last six holes, enough reason for the gallery to stick around even as Woods was long gone and Mickelson was on the practice range in the fading sunlight.
Woodland, who played Division II basketball for one year, played his final six holes in 6-under par for a 69. Vegas, such an exciting young player that his colleagues call him “Johnny Vegas,” three-putted for bogey from 12 feet on the 18th for a 72.
Mickelson and Woods, with six green jackets between them in the last decade, blended in more than they stood out.
Woods played in the morning in only a moderate breeze, ideal conditions for scoring. But he lost his way starting the back nine with consecutive bogeys, made only one birdie on the par 5s and had to settle for a 71.
“I would rather be where Rory’s at,” Woods said. “But, hey, it’s a long way to go. We have a long grind ahead of us. The temperature is supposed to warm up and I’m sure they will start making the pins a little more difficult as the week goes on. I’m right there in the ballgame. I’m only six back, and as I said, we’ve got a lot of golf ahead of us.”
Mickelson was far more erratic off the tee, hitting tee shots into the Georgia pines and spraying one so far into the azaleas left of the 13th fairway that he looked like he was on an Easter egg hunt as he searched for his ball. He hit only four fairways, last in the field of 99 players.
As always, his superb chipping kept him from dropping shots on three straight holes around the turn. His only mistake came on the 18th, when he hit his approach into the gallery left of the green and chipped too hard, missing a 7-foot par putt for a 70.