A return to April means a tough test at Augusta National
April 08, 2021
By Sean Martin, PGATOUR.COM
- Augusta National proved firm and fast during the opening round of the Masters. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
AUGUSTA, Ga. – Ignore Justin Rose for a moment.
We swear Augusta National provided the promised test, demanding the most out of Masters competitors. The firm and fast conditions – a stark contrast to what we saw in November – were the talk of the town during practice rounds and they tested players during Thursday’s opening round.
No golfer likes shooting higher scores, but players seemed to prefer seeing Alister Mackenzie’s masterpiece play to its potential, even if red numbers were harder to come by than tickets to this year’s Masters. When the greens are slick and balls are bouncing, the genius behind Augusta National’s greens is accentuated. Steep slopes help well-positioned shots funnel closer to the hole while penalizing mishits and wayward strikes.
“The golf course is more fun this way,” Webb Simpson said after shooting 70, “because you really have to think.”
Rose’s 65 – which included a 10-hole stretch that he played in 9 under par – was an outlier, an anomaly at Augusta National. His four-shot advantage is the second-largest Thursday lead in this tournament’s history. Only two other players broke 70. Simply breaking par put you in the top 10 at day’s end.
Even Rose admitted that he didn’t think “today was the day for a 65.” He teed off at 12:48 p.m. om a day the latter half of the draw averaged 75.02 strokes.
He seems to perform his best when Augusta National is at its most worst, however.
This is the fourth time that Rose has held the 18-hole lead at Augusta National, tying Jack Nicklaus for the most all-time. Three of those 18-hole leads, including today, have come on days the scoring average was 74.5 or higher.
After Dustin Johnson shot a record-setting 20-under 268 last year, we could be looking at the first Masters since 2017 that’s won with score that’s single digits under par. That was the year Rose lost in a playoff to Sergio Garcia.
“I feel sorry for the guys who played their first Masters in November,” said Kevin Kisner.“They're walking out there today wondering what the hell is going on.”
Even though players knew what was coming Thursday, they struggled to score. On Monday, the conditions were already comparable to what we’re accustomed to seeing on a Sunday, when courses traditionally play their toughest. Simpson was standing in the 14th fairway Thursday with a 9-iron in hand and he didn’t envision a way that he could hit the green. “Sure enough, it went over the green,” he said. Even short irons are bounding across these baked-out putting surfaces.
An inconsistent breeze – which made shot selection a guessing game – added to the challenge.
“It can go from blowing 15 (mph) to 0 pretty quick out here,” said Brooks Koepka.
Jon Rahm arrived at Augusta National on Wednesday after the birth of his first child. New parents often speak glowingly about the perspective they’ve gained. Everything else seems less important than the little child you’re now responsible for. It’s often a perfect recipe for good golf because the 6-foot putts suddenly feel less stressful.
Augusta National wasn’t interested in providing a warm welcome, however.
“There was not one moment where … I felt relaxed out there,” Rahm said after shooting 72.
We saw chip shots roll across the 15th green and into the water. Some putts didn’t stay on the putting surface. The patrons were back for the first time in two years but roars were rare. Players were on the defensive. Some of the Kansas City Chiefs were in attendance Thursday but this first round was more like facing the Steel Curtain.
Hideki Matsuyama, who shot 70, said, “I’ve never seen the greens so firm and fast.” This is his 10th Masters.
Kisner teed off before 9:30 a.m. He described the start of his round as a “nice, casual stroll around Augusta.” Sounds nice. By the time he got to the second nine, it was more like “a roller-coaster.” His scorecard showed it. Kisner made eight pars and one birdie on the first nine. His final nine holes featured two birdies, an eagle, a triple-bogey and two bogeys. He shot 1-over 37 on that side with just three pars.
There is some hope for a respite. This week’s warm temperatures have contributed to the conditions, but Augusta National also let the course get this firm because of rain that is forecast to come in the next three days. There is no guarantee of precipitation, though. There’s a 40% chance of rain Friday and Sunday and a 60% chance Saturday. But even a little rain won’t be enough to substantially slow this fast track.
Said two-time Masters champion Bernhard Langer, “This is the way it should be.”