You can’t win a green jacket on Thursday at the Masters, but you sure as heck can send a strong signal to the local tailor that you won’t be slipping one over the shoulders this year. Three-time champion Phil Mickelson and World No. 1 Luke Donald dangled into that dangerous territory in the opening round.
Mickelson had a rough day from tee to green, missing it "four or five" times in places he knows he simply cannot miss shots. A "horrific" drive way left off the 10th tee led to triple-bogey 7 and an eventual round of 74. He hit only eight greens in regulation – tying his tournament low in his 20th Masters – and he did not give himself many quality birdie chances.
Nonetheless, having stood on the 11th tee at 4 over, he battled hard, and a closing birdie at 18 got him into the clubhouse at only 2 over.
"I could have been sitting here 5 or 6 over and out of the tournament," Mickelson said, "but at 2 over, I'm one hot round from being back in this tournament. I know if I can play the first three holes in 2 under tomorrow (Friday), I'm back to even par."
Following the heavy rains that hit on Tuesday and Wednesday, mud on the golf ball was a significant factor. Mickelson faced an approach shot at the perilous par-4 11th hole with mud on the left side of his golf ball; he had to aim the shot a full 35 yards right of the flag, toward the 12th tee. Even then, the ball rocketed left on him and nearly finished in the pond that fronts the left edge of the green.
He said his struggles with his long game came as a result of being a bit tentative, which led him to get a little narrow on the downswing and leads him to hit big cuts. "I try to steer it, and I hit the big slice," he said. He vows to be more aggressive in Round 2, when he hopes to return to the mix of contenders.
"When I go after it, I get wider, I hit it harder and I hit it straighter. So I'll be going after it tomorrow."
As for Donald, he shot 75 and became caught up in a mini-scoring controversy following his round. He’d made bogey-5 at the fifth hole and signed for 75; however, an administrative error mistook a ‘5’ for a ‘3’ and the scoring computers around the golf course showed Donald at 73. Not so. He met with a Masters official afterward and the situation was squared away. The usually steady Donald made six bogeys in his round, including uncharacteristic three-putt bogeys at Nos. 5 and 6.
For all the talk about the big guns entering this year’s Masters – six of the world’s top 10 players already have won this year – only Lee Westwood (67) was hitting on anything close to all cylinders. Tiger Woods finished bogey-bogey to shoot level par. Rory McIlroy, who began his round with a double bogey, battled all day and finally poured in two closing birdies to pull out a respectable round of 71. World No. 4 Hunter Mahan, the top-ranked American in the field, got to 3 under through five holes, but had no birdies the rest of the way and shot 72.
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Charles Howell III, who was raised in Augusta but now lives in Orlando, Fla., is playing his first Masters since 2008. He shot 72, and after his round, a reporter from an Augusta television station asked Howell if, being a local Augustan and all, he found the other two players in his group picked his brain for local knowledge about Augusta National Golf Club. One fellow competitor was Bernhard Langer, making his 29th Masters start.
“One of them,” said Howell, alluding to Langer, “has two green jackets to my zero. So I’m trying to learn from him."
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It would be one thing if the Masters invited a handful of amateurs to play, set them up in the Crow’s Nest and then forgot about them. But playing Augusta National as an amateur is an experience that no player will forget. Some players through the years have competed as ams (Jack Nicklaus, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods, Trevor Immelman) and gone on to win the Masters; some compete here as amateurs and never get back. Safe to say, U.S. Mid-Amateur champion Randal Lewis, at 54 the oldest first-timer ever to play the Masters, will be challenged to earn a return trip down Magnolia Lane. He seems fine with that. On the heels of shooting 9 over on Thursday, he said, “That’s my all-time favorite 81, without a doubt.”
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Another cool thing about being an amateur at Augusta? Australian Bryden Macpherson, the British Amateur champion, was 5 over through 11, yet his name still was listed among the leaders on the giant leaderboard on the right side of the 18th fairway. Macpherson was guided around by two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw, now 60, a generous ambassador who relishes taking a young player such as Macpherson under his wing. Crenshaw is competing in his 41st Masters, and doesn’t know how long he’ll keep competing. “It’s a lot of golf course,” he said after opening with a 76. Crenshaw needed 5-wood to reach the par-4 first and hit 3-wood at the par-3 fourth. “It’s just a lot of golf course for me,” he said, sighing. Crenshaw played his first two Masters as an amateur while he was at the University of Texas. With whom did Crenshaw play in his very first Masters? Charles Coody. After Crenshaw finished talking to a few members of the media, he told caddie Carl Jackson, who is working his 51st Masters, to meet him on the practice tee. “Let’s see what we have in the barrel," he said, smiling.
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In any other sport, having three old guys show up for a single shot – or ceremonial pitch, or the equivalent in some other sport – likely would seem silly. But at Augusta National, seeing Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player together on the first tee once more gives one goosebumps, and reminds one that Augusta National Golf Club is one special golf history museum. Asked who hit the longest drive of the Big Three, Nicklaus quipped, “I don’t think any of us can see that far.” All these three did was play 147 Masters between them and win green jackets in 1958, ’60, ’61, ’62, ’63, ’64, ’65, ’66, ’72, ’74, ’75, ’79 . . . and oh, yeah, 1986.
Why are they still here? A sense of gratitude, says Player.
“We must never forget where we came from and how we started, and what this tournament has done for us in our lives,” he said.
Refreshing to hear. Also refreshing to see Phil Mickelson, wearing his champion's green blazer, standing behind the first tee shortly after dawn, nearly 6 hours before his tee time, taking in the scene.
"I've been here 20 years, and I've been wanting to do that every year," Mickelson said at dusk on Thursday. "This just worked out great because I had the last tee time. I think it's an experience I really enjoyed. What they've meant to the game of golf … they are the Big Three, and they've brought the game to where it is. Anybody who has the chance to come to the Masters, it's worth getting up early to watch those guys tee off. They're charismatic, and they are what this game is all about."
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