Thursday at the Masters is just a first date with destiny. A hug. A nervous laugh. A playful squeeze of the shoulder. That’s about it.
Those at the lead on Thursday are routinely unfriended by the Masters come Sunday. But among the horde of eligible champions that showed up on this opening round, plenty bring real potential and the staying power of a birthmark.
An early evening surge by some of the leading lights of the game – there was more good golf after 6 p.m. Thursday than you might see in full sun just about anywhere else – resulted in a leaderboard that went from amorphous to amazing in a matter of hours. At the end, springing from the final three groupings of the day were co-leaders Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka, both shooting 6-under 66s, both authoring back nines worthy of framing (31, in each case).
Those in the top 10 and within three strokes of the lead included four players currently ranked in the world’s top 10 – joining Koepka (No. 4) and DeChambeau (No. 6) were No. 2 Dustin Johnson at 4-under 68 and No. 8 Jon Rahm, who shot 69. There was also room in that group for a 48-year-old golden oldie, three-time Masters winner Phil Mickelson and his 67. It was his lowest first round here since another 67 in 2010, the year of his last Masters victory.
Another former champion, Adam Scott, lurked as well, three shots back of the leaders.
This tournament even had something for the geography nerds out there. The top 10 included players from four continents – North America, Asia, Europe and Australia.
Oh, and just outside that select company was a certain four-time Masters champion who remains the compressed rubber core of this game. He did nothing to eliminate himself from the conversation. Tiger Woods shot a 2-under 70 that felt very comfortable, even portentous, to him. Even if his personal history was a little off.
“I feel very good,” said Woods, who was momentarily atop the leaderboard in the afternoon after consecutive birdies on No. 13 and 14, before shifting into neutral. “I feel like I played well today and I controlled my golf ball all day. I've shot this number and won four coats, so hopefully I can do it again.” Woods opened with a 70 in his first three winning Masters campaigns. On his fourth in 2005, he opened with a much more daunting 74.
Hours before the leaders were coming home, pre-tournament favorite Rory McIlroy was expressing small relief that no one at that point was getting too far out of range of his first-round 73. The scoring was mysteriously depressed even as the sunny, mild and moist conditions were practically begging for someone to go low.
“I’m sort of surprised that there haven’t been some lower scores out there. It’s soft. The greens are kind of slow. It’s there for the taking and I’m surprised someone hasn’t run off,” he said.
Just wait, Rory. There was a flood of low numbers coming.
In quick succession long after everyone else’s traditional quitting time, Augusta National went a bit loopy. Happy Hour came a little late this day.
Mickelson almost aced the par 3 16th. He saved par on No. 17, getting up and down from the right side of the green and sunk a 7-foot birdie putt on No. 18.
“It was great. It was a lot of fun,” Mickelson said, sounding quite renewed. “And it's fun to finish off the round. It's fun to make a good par save on 17 and birdie the last. It's fun to finish a good round off rather than leak one here or there coming in.”
Meanwhile, DeChambeau’s approach to the par 4 18th – which played the most difficult Thursday – hit the flagstick dead center and came to rest inches from the hole. That finished a closing run of four straight birdies.
“What a magical back nine,” DeChambeau said. You think? In eight previous rounds here, he had never shot better than 71.
There was something almost spiritual going on out there in the dying light of Thursday that even a science-based man like DeChambeau could feel. “It's great to have momentum and hear a great atmosphere and gets you all pumped up,” he said. “It creates some adrenaline flow and allows you to get in a different mind‑set. I believe that's partially what happened today”
And there was Koepka putting up four straight birdies himself between holes No. 12-15, and then cooling off from there – parring out the rest of the way – lest his irons go molten.
All Koepka has done is win two of the last three majors he’s played in (2018’s U.S. Open - his second straight - and the PGA Championship). Pretty soon we’re going to have to start taking him seriously.
“I enjoy major championships. I mean, that's what you're remembered by,” he said.
The finish of the first round was absolutely exhausting – for those watching it.
But so very worth the effort. Because something very lasting just may work out from this first date with destiny.
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