Corey Conners pitches to the green on 8 during the first round of the Masters Tournament Thursday, April 11, 2019, at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta. Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

For several first-time Masters participants, no big deal

Maybe it’s the nerves that come unglued at the first major championship of the season. Or perhaps it’s the lack of local knowledge that Augusta National demands. Could even be sensory overload from all the azaleas in bloom.

Newcomers typically shouldn’t set their hopes too high. 

“Notoriously, they haven’t done very well,” said Justin Harding. 

Until Thursday.

Harding, a 33-year-old South African, shot 3-under 69 in his first competitive round at Augusta National. Lucas Bjerregaard, 27, from Denmark shot a 70, despite making a bogey from the bunker on the final hole. Canadian Corey Conners, playing his first round in the Masters as a professional, also shot a 70. 

Maybe it’s not so hard after all.

Harding benefited from the advice of other South Africans. He chatted up fellow countryman Ernie Els about the back nine and played practice rounds with 2011 Masters champion Charl Schwartzel, 2010 British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen and Branden Grace.

“As I said, we’ve played the golf course in our brains a few times, having watched it on TV,’ Harding said. 

Both Harding and Bjerregaard have veteran caddies who acted as Sherpas. Harding leans on the advice of Alan Burns. Bjerregaard’s caddie, Jonathan Smart, was on the bag when Danny Willett won the 2016 Masters. Both golfers were able to place the ball in the least troublesome zones.

“I was able to put it in some good spots where it was pretty stress-free,” Bjerregaard said. 

Stress free equates to hitting fairways and greens, which the three did well. 

Harding hit 10 fairways, 10 greens in regulation and needed only 25 putts. He had five birdies and two bogeys, including one on the 18th hole when his drive caught the right greenside bunker.

“I thoroughly enjoyed it,” Harding said. “I handled the emotions of the day quite well, better than expected. The bogey on 18 was a bit naughty, but I was seeing stars in the bunker. That bunker is bright.”

Bjerregaard hit 11 of 14 fairways, 11 greens in regulation and needed only 29 putts. His worst mistake was a double-bogey from the bunker at No. 4, although he lamented the bogey at 18 where he missed a three-foot putt and failed to get up and down from the greenside bunker.

“The short putt on 18 hurts a bit, but other than that, No. 4 and 18 were the only two mistakes I made all day,” Bjerregaard said. 

Conners hit 15 greens in regulation and 11 fairways, but needed 33 putts. That includes a pair of three-putts, including from the lower tier of the 18th green. His highlight was an eagle at the 15th, enabled by a 202-yard 6-iron that stopped just behind the hole. 

“I hit a lot of quality shots and had a nice stretch in the middle of the back nine,” he said. 

Connors had an extra hurdle to climb, too. He was in the first group of the day, the one that followed the ceremonial first shots by Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. Nicklaus even introduced himself to Conners and congratulated him on last week’s win at the Texas Open. 

“Never thought in a million years that Jack Nicklaus would know who I am and it just felt pretty cool,” Conners said. 

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