AUGUSTA, Ga. – Even before the masters began, it was obvious that Augusta National was no longer the same in April as it was in November. It was far less clear which place Justin Rose played on Thursday.
Rose made seven birdies and an eagle during a hot 10-hole course for a 7-under-65 and a 4-shot lead, his lowest score at Augusta National in one of the toughest opening rounds.
It started with a nice jump off the hills to the left of the green on the par-5 eighth note that set up a 10-foot eagle. Only two of his birdie putts were outside of 8 feet. He brought out a 12-foot par putt on the one green he’d missed. Not bad for a 40-year-old from England who’s playing for the first time in a month while resting a sick back.
His 65 looked even better on such a tough day that only 12 players broke the par and the average score was 74.5.
“Look, I didn’t know where my game was going this week,” said Rose. “I’ve worked hard. I could have played the last two tournaments, but I tried really hard to prepare myself for this Masters.”
Twice runners-up, including a playoff loss to Sergio Garcia four years ago, Rose set a Masters record by taking at least a portion of the first-round lead for the fourth time. The other one who did that was Jack Nicklaus. The difference? Nicklaus won two of his six green jackets from this position.
Rose likes to say that he only had one arm in his jacket.
Brian Harman, the last player to step on the 88-man field, and Hideki Matsuyama finished their rounds of 69 around the time Rose started on a course that was dry and crispy, on greens that were so fast that there were brown spots.
Among the 70-year-olds were former Masters champion Patrick Reed and Masters newcomer Will Zalatoris. Jordan Spieth overcame a triple bogey from the trees on No. 9 for a 71.
There was a ton of red numbers missing from the leaderboard in such difficult conditions that after 76, Garcia said, “I feel like I just got out of the ring with Evander Holyfield.”
Five months ago, at the first Masters in November due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the turf was so soft that 53 players were below average after the opening round.
British Open Champion Shane Lowry threw himself into the water from the back of the 15th green in front of the green. He escaped with a bogey and made a 71. US amateur champ Tyler Strafaci hit a 60-foot putt off the ninth green that landed 75 feet on the other side.
Defending champion Dustin Johnson, who set the record 20 under 268 last year, failed to break the par for the first time since the opening round in 2018.
“I’m sorry for the boys’ first Masters in November and then they go out today and wonder what the hell is going on,” said Kevin Kisner after a hard-earned 72.
That wasn’t a surprise. Augusta National hasn’t had rain in over a week and players couldn’t remember the last time the greens were this fast during practice laps, let alone a scorecard on Thursday.
“It’s my 10th year but I’ve never seen the greens so tight and fast,” said Matsuyama. “So it was like a new place for me to play today and I was lucky enough to play it well.”
And what should I say of Rose? Even under more forgiving terms, he had never done better than 67.
“I didn’t feel like today was the day for a 65, if I’m honest,” said Rose.
Nobody had to convince, least of all Bryson DeChambeau and Rory McIlroy, among the top players who struggled with the wind and had just as many problems when the ball was on the ground.
DeChambeau, the US Open champion who went out of his way to bring his oversized game to Augusta National, only made a birdie on the 15th hole and shot 76, his highest professional score at the Masters. Patrick Cantlay hit the water on both par 3s of the back nine and shot 79.
“The boys will shoot their way out of the golf tournament on day one,” said Webb Simpson after a late double bogey forced him to be satisfied with a 70.
McIlroy, who needed a green jacket to complete his grand slam career, hit his father down the seventh hole with one shot. That was about the most interesting moment on his 76th lap. Lee Westwood, who had two runners-up in Florida Swing, had a 78.
Rose looked like he was going that way. He made a soft bogey on No. 1. He putted three times over the green on No. 7. He was 2 over, although he wasn’t ready to panic. He knew it was tough. He also knew he was going in the wrong direction.
“You can’t win the golf tournament today. Even with a 65, you can’t win it today,” said Rose. “You can probably just probably lose it today. I sat back a little earlier and thought if I can get myself back to the same level it would be a good job.”
He hit 5-wood in 10 feet for eagles and a 9-iron on the dangerous left pin at numbers 9 to 4 feet for birdie. He got a 25-foot putt on the 10th and an 8-foot putt on 6 feet on the No. 12. It never stopped. From the first rough cut on the 17th, his wedge was 4 feet from the hole.
He went through the details of this incredible route, smiled and said, “Sounds easy.”
It looked like. But only for him.