AUGUSTA – You didn’t need a calendar to know it was April at Augusta National. Just look at the leaderboard Thursday. Or listen to the muttering of players as they relived the trauma of putting on the antique green glass of a Masters the way it’s supposed to be.

That concession to COVID last November, back when the course was softer and the scoring easier, that’s like some weird dream now. Like it never happened. Played in its normal time slot, Augusta National had its hard-shell defenses back Thursday.

So, fellas, it’s back to business as usual. You know, pucker up and putt.

And work on your contact sport metaphors – you’re running through them pretty fast.

“I feel like just came out of the ring with Evander Holyfield, like a 12-round match. I need to go home and rest,” said 2017 Masters champion Sergio Garcia, who shot 76.

“I feel like I just got in the ring with Mike Tyson or somebody,” said Gary Woodland (73).

Some perspective in what a difference five months can make: They set a record for scores in the 60s on that first round last November (24). Thursday, only three ventured to the shady side of 70.

Explore2021 Masters leaaderboard

Dustin Johnson won the whole shebang five months ago in record 20 under fashion. He suffered but four bogeys that entire tournament. He used up all his allotment in one day – with three bogeys and a ruinous double bogey on 18 Thursday on the way to a 74, his highest round here since 2014.

Somehow one player separated himself from the straining masses. The long, lean Brit Justin Rose, remember him? Once voted Most Likely to Win Masters and Get Meghan Markle-Sized Headlines Back Home. Former world’s No. 1, winner of the 2013 U.S. Open and two-time Masters runner-up, who seemed to go into competitive quarantine when the pandemic kicked in. The guy had no finish better than 17th in seven PGA Tour events this year, and his world ranking (41) has now eclipsed his age (40).

No one saw this coming as he was sputtering along at 2 over through the first seven holes. But on the par-5 No. 8 his 5-wood second shot caromed so willingly off a mound left of the green and rolled to 9 feet from the hole. The eagle there was the ignition to lift-off. He was 9 under over his closing 11 holes, fashioning a back-side 30 on the way to a 7-under 65.

Such an outlier was that score that it staked Rose to a four-shot lead over former Georgia Bulldog Brian Harman and Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama. That ties with Charley Hoffman (2017) and Jackie Burke (1955) for the second largest first-round lead in tournament history. Only Craig Wood’s five-shot first round lead in 1941 was larger. And only Wood among those three won come Sunday.

Such were the fast, firm conditions that Rose admitted, “I didn’t feel like today was the day for a 65, if I’m honest.”

“The eagle – boom – I was straight back in there. Piggybacking with a birdie straightaway at No. 9, suddenly I turned in 1-under, and I could feel like I could actually leave the front nine behind as a job well done and kind of move to the back nine and try and build a score,” he said.

“I just got on a great run and was just trying to stay out of my own way and just try to get it to the clubhouse and keep doing what I was doing.”

In a vast majority of cases, the 12 in the 88-player field who finished under par Thursday gave the Masters leaderboard a distinctly Sanderson Farms Championship look. There were exceptions, of course. But for every Patrick Reed (70) and Jordan Spieth (71), there was an abundance of those like Will Zalatoris (70), Christiaan Bezuidenhout (70) and Jason Kokrak (71). Four of the under-par minority – Rose, Reed, Spieth and Shane Lowry (71) – own major championships.

In such an, ahem, eclectic collection of contenders, the 5-foot-7 Harman can kind of get lost in the crowd. Not all who climb to the top of the Masters leaderboard are giants. It’s just the press clippings upon which they stand that make them seem that way.

The Masters miniatures collection goes back to 5-5 Gene Sarazen and included 5-7 Gary Player as well as the Wee Welshman, Ian Woosnam. This is the 30th anniversary of Woosnam slipping into a green jacket hastily borrowed from a member, as Augusta National had nothing prepared in a 38-short after he won.

So, say it loud and proud while you can, Mr. Harman: “I think there’s still plenty of room in the game for a guy like me. I don’t make any bones about not being able to carry it 300 yards, but I don’t think you have to.”

Bigger players with bigger names were looking up to Harman Thursday.

Speaking for these who were over par but out of nothing was world’s No. 3 Jon Rahm, when asked Augusta National’s degree of difficulty between 1 and 10.

“I would say 8½ or 9,” he said.

“Just hitting the green is usually a hard task out there, but even more so this time. Pars are usually pretty good, especially this week. Even par is a great round,” said Rahm, who coincidentally shot 72.

The first words defending U.S. Open champion and presumptive plunderer of Augusta National Bryson DeChambeau spoke at the No. 1 tee box Thursday were, “Fore, left!” It didn’t get a lot better. A neat little 58th in the field in greens in regulation, DeChambeau was 4 over at the turn and stayed there, shooting 76.

Johnson zig-zagged on the par-4 finishing hole, going from pinestraw right to newly-returned patrons on the left for that double-bogey at the close. World No. 2 Justin Thomas shot a very quiet 73, bouncing back from a 3-over 39 on the front.

Rain, or as it’s called here a reprieve, is a slight possibility the next could days. Maybe it will soften up here. Maybe it won’t. April is a fickle month. And that leads to a tournament with a mood to match.

In Other News