Charley Hoffman leads Masters by four shots after ‘dream’ day

Charley Hoffman waves to the crowd en route to his seven-under 65 in the first round of the 81st Masters. Picture: Getty Images

Charley Hoffman waves to the crowd en route to his seven-under 65 in the first round of the 81st Masters. Picture: Getty Images

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Charley Hoffman produced one of the greatest rounds in Masters history to open up a record-equalling four-shot lead at the end of a dramatic first day in the event’s 81st contest at a blustery Augusta National.

The 40-year-old defied some of the toughest conditions the tournament has witnessed in recent years to card a seven-under-par 65, signing for nine birdies and coming home in 31.

The brilliant effort was 10 shots better than the average score on a day when only 11 players in the 94-strong field finished in red figures.

Hoffman is just the third player in Masters history to lead by four shots after 18 holes. Craig Wood was the first in 1941 and went on to complere a wire-to-wire win.

Jackie Burke Jnr also burst out of the blocks in 1955 but he lost out to Cary Middlecoff.

Only time will tell if Hoffman can emulate Wood, but this isn’t the first time that the Californian’s name has been up near the top of the leaderboard in this event.

Two years ago, he was second after the first and second rounds then fourth after 54 holes before finishing joint-ninth behind Jordan Spieth.

“It was a dream,” said Hoffman of this eye-catching start. “You hit the shots that you’re sort of looking at, and then the hardest part is to convert the putts.

“I was able to do that and I got some good numbers coming down the stretch.”

A four-time PGA Tour winner, the leader had just 25 putts in a round that saw him hit 14 greens in regulation.

“I got a little bit lucky,” he added. “I was fortunate I put myself in spots to be able to make putts.

“I was able to make some longer putts, which you’re just trying to die it up there close to the hole.”

The challenge for Hoffman now is to try and back up his flying start. He’s hoping to draw on that experience of being in contention in 2015.

“Yeah, I’m going to feed off that the rest of the week,” he admitted. “Today you just sort go with it. There wasn’t, I wouldn’t say, a ton of pressure today.

“Obviously going to sleep on the lead at a major championship here at Augusta National is not going to be the easiest thing.

“But I look forward to it, and I look forward to the challenge the next three days.”

His nearest challenger is fellow American William McGirt, who was on the first tee in the morning to join in a tribute to four-time winner Arnold Palmer before getting his own Masters career off to a great start.

“This is a lifelong dream,” said the 37-year-old, who made his PGA Tour breakthrough by winning the Memorial Tournament last year. “You don’t know if this moment will ever happen.

“Believe it or not, I was not nervous at all today. I really even surprised myself. When I heard, “Fore, please, William McGirt now driving,” I almost shed a tear.

“But I realised I had to get up there and I had 40 seconds to hit it, so I better get it done quick.”

McGirt, who said he has both Scottish and Irish ancestry, and his wife, Sarah, joined ‘Arnie’s Army’ earlier in the day as Augusta National paid its tribute to Palmer, who passed away at the age of 87 last September.

“We were never going to miss the Opening Ceremony this morning, or the ceremonial tee shot,” said McGirt.

Englishman Lee Westwood, who finished joint-second behind compatriot Danny Willett 12 months ago, sits a shot further back in third.

The 43-year-old transformed his day by making five birdies in a row on the back nine, having been three-over after 12 holes.

Eight players share fourth spot on one-under, including three-time winner Phil Mickelson, English trio Justin Rose, Matthew Fizpatrick and Andrew Sullivan, as well as Spaniard Sergio Garcia.

The highlight of Mickelson’s round was an eagle-3 at the second - his first at that hole in 19 years.

The left-hander said he’d relished the challenge of playing in testing conditions. “Man, I love it,” he declared. “I thought anything at par or better was going to be a great score and it is.”

Among seven players sitting on level-par are Irish duo Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry, Belgian Thomas Pieters, England’s Paul Casey, Dane Soren Kjeldsen and four-time major champion Ernie Els.

Career Grand Slam-chasing McIlroy was also three-over with six to play before picking up confidence-boosting birdies at the 13th, 15th and 16th.

“That’s unbelievable. That’s incredible,” said McIlroy of Hoffman’s score. “I thought if anyone broke 70 today that would be an unbelievable score and then to see what he did over the last six or seven holes was incredible golf.

I’m walking off there after my start ecstatic with a 72 and he is walking off with a 65, but as they say they don’t give green jackets out on Thursdays and there is no winning post there.

“I think I’m in a good position with three rounds to go and we will see how it goes.”

Defending champion Danny Willett recovered manfully from a 6-6 start to salvage a 73, the same score posted by 1992 winner Fred Couples, 2015 Scottish Open champion Rickie Fowler and new Spanish star Jon Rahm.

World No 3 Jason Day had a 74, as did reigning Scottish Open champion Alex Noren and two-time Masters winner Bubba Watson.

The group on three-over includes former champions Adam Scott and Jordan Spieth, the latter running up a nightmare quadruple-bogey 9 at the 15th.

It was the highest score in the Texan’s PGA Tour career and came after he’d taken an another quadruple-bogey - a 7 on that occasion - at the 12th in last year’s final round as he squandered a five-shot lead heading into the back nine.

“I didn’t take my medicine after laying up,” said Spieth of this disaster. “Instead, I was stuck in the 15‑is‑a‑birdie‑hole mentality, and it kind of bit me a little bit.”

“But I played the last three holes well (covering that stretch in one-under) and fortunately I’m still in it.”

He’ll need to re-write the record books to win for a second time in three years, though, as no Masters champion has made worse than 7 on any hole.

Dustin Johnson, the world No 1 and title favourite, withdrew before teeing off after hurting his back falling down stairs on the eve of the event.

“I’m playing the best golf of my career,” said the 28-year-old of winning his last three events, two of them World Golf Championships.

“This is an event I look forward to every year, so to have a freak accident that means I can’t play just sucks, it really does.”

FULL FIRST-ROUND SCORES

65 Charley Hoffman

69 William McGirt

70 Lee Westwood (Eng)

71 Jason Dufner, Kevin Chappell, Phil Mickelson, Andrew Sullivan (Eng), Justin

Rose (Eng), Russell Henley, Sergio Garcia (Spa), Matthew Fitzpatrick (Eng)

72 Soren Kjeldsen (Den), Rory McIlroy (Nirl), Shane Lowry (Irl), Ernie Els

(Rsa), Paul Casey (Eng), Matt Kuchar, Thomas Pieters (Bel)

73 Justin Thomas, Marc Leishman (Aus), Jon Rahm (Spa), Danny Willett (Eng),

Scott Piercy, Rickie Fowler, Fred Couples

74 Jason Day (Aus), Chris Wood (Eng), Pat Perez, Stewart Hagestad (a), Alex

Noren (Swe), Charl Schwartzel (Rsa), Bubba Watson, Brendan Steele, Brooks

Koepka, Yuta Ikeda (Jpn), Rod Pampling (Aus), Daniel Summerhays, Larry Mize,

Kevin Kisner, Ryan Moore

75 Bernhard Langer (Ger), Steve Stricker, Adam Scott (Aus), Gary Woodland, Adam

Hadwin (Can), Webb Simpson, Si Woo Kim (Kor), Billy Hurley III, Bill Haas, James

Hahn, Rafael Cabrera-Bello (Spa), Brandt Snedeker, Jordan Spieth

76 Hideki Matsuyama (Jpn), Ross Fisher (Eng), Byeong-Hun An (Kor), Branden

Grace (Rsa), Hideto Tanihara (Jpn), Kevin Na, Sean O’Hair, Mike Weir (Can),

Jimmy Walker, Ian Woosnam (Wal), Russell Knox (Sco), Patrick Reed

77 Brian Stuard, Hudson Swafford, Zach Johnson, Louis Oosthuizen (Rsa), Daniel

Berger, Jose-Maria Olazabal (Spa), Sandy Lyle (Sco), Bernd Wiesberger (Aut),

Henrik Stenson (Swe)

78 Brad Dalke (a), Francesco Molinari (Ita), Jeung-Hun Wang (Kor), Martin

Kaymer (Ger), Vijay Singh (Fij), J.B. Holmes, Jim Furyk, Mark O’Meara, Tommy

Fleetwood (Eng), Curtis Luck (a) (Aus), Jhonattan Vegas (Ven)

79 Emiliano Grillo (Arg), Trevor Immelman (Rsa), Roberto Castro, Mackenzie

Hughes (Can), Angel Cabrera (Arg)

80 Tyrrell Hatton (Eng)

81 Toto Gana (a) (Chi)

82 Scott Gregory (a) (Eng)

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