THREE weeks after hurting himself jumping down from one, Sergio Garcia is sitting at the top of the tree. Well, joint-top anyway after the Spaniard’s opening six-under-par 66 in the first round of the 77th Masters was matched on a low-scoring day at Augusta National by Australian Marc Leishman.
Tucked in behind the pair is big-hitting American Dustin Johnson, who grew up an hour away from here and lists this as “my favourite event”, while Garcia’s compatriot, Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano, and Englishman David Lynn are sitting in a group on 68 that also includes two former winners, Fred Couples and Trevor Immelman, as well as Rickie Fowler and Matt Kuchar.
On a day when world No 1 Tiger Woods and second-ranked Rory McIlroy signed for 70 and 72 respectively, pride of place belonged to Garcia, who has only finished in the top five once in 14 previous appearances here, and Leishman, who missed the cut three years ago in his only other trip up Magnolia Lane.
Garcia is probably lucky to be here at all. In last month’s Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, he climbed a tree to play a shot after his ball had got stuck up it, jumped down from his perch and later withdrew due to the fact he’d hurt himself in the process.
“If I hit a shot up a tree here, there’s no chance of me getting up to the ball because the branches are 60 feet high,” he joked after a round that was
illuminated by five birdies in the opening ten holes. “Without doubt, that’s the best ten holes I’ve played in Masters and that’s what I’m going to take into my pillow tonight,” he said.
Reminded that he’d often said this wasn’t his favourite major, the 33-year-old replied: “I always try to enjoy it as much as I can. Today was one of those good days, so let’s enjoy it while it lasts.”
Leishman, a 29-year-old from Victoria, first showed he had star potential during a trip to Scotland in 2004, recording a runaway victory in the Tennant Cup, a 72-hole Scottish Order of Merit event split between Glasgow Gailes on the Ayrshire coast and Killermont in Glasgow.
Reminded of that victory by The Scotsman, Leishman admitted it had played a part in shaping a career that has already seen him land 2012 Travelers Championship on the PGA Tour. “Yeah, that was great,” he said. “Just playing in a tournament like that over two different courses in Scotland was a great experience and it’s better when you win it by a fair few, I think maybe ten or something.
“Any time that you can get out as an amateur, play in front of some decent crowds on a course that you don’t really know, it’s good to see how your nerves hold up, how your green reading is, course management and all that. Holding up a trophy at the end of any tournament is a lot of fun, so that was good.”
He also enjoyed a run on the back nine here that produced four birdies in a row from 13th, going 4-3-4-2. The last of those was a monster putt. “I don’t know how far that was, but it was in a different zip code, I think,” he joked. His opening effort marked a six-stroke improvement on three years ago.
“I was like a bit of a deer in headlights, I guess,” he admitted of that experience. “I found myself looking around a little bit too much and not concentrating on getting the ball in the hole, which is what you need to do.”
Johnson, who missed the season’s opening major last season due to a back injury, started birdie-birdie, had an eagle at the 13th and also chipped in twice. By comparison, Woods’ round was a lot less spectacular but, nonetheless, it was the first time in five rounds here that he’d managed to break par after failing to do so at all 12 months ago, when he finished a disappointing 40th behind Bubba Watson.
On an overcast day in Georgia that saw a slight breeze get up just before midday, the world No 1 opened with five straight pars before picking up his first birdie following a peach of a tee shot to a few feet at the par-3 sixth.
He showed a deft touch from the back of the green at the eighth to pick up another shot and was out in 34. A brilliant two-putt from across the green at the 13th took him to three-under before dropping his only shot of the day at the next. A pulled approach followed by a three-putt did the damage there, but, overall, Woods was content with his day’s work.
“I played solid,” said the 14-time major winner and chasing his fourth title triumph in 2013. “It was a good round.” He hit 13 greens in regulation, nine out of 14 fairways and had 30 putts. “I putted well,” added the four-time Masters champion. “I made some good some par saves and that was very satisfying.”
Lynn loves majors. In only his second one, he finished runner-up to McIlroy in last year’s USPGA Championship at Kiawah Island, where he closed with a brace of 68s. Taking up where he’d left off there, the 39-year-old from Stoke-on-Trent started his debut here with a birdie and added two more – at the eighth and ninth – to be out in 33. His back nine was a bit more up and down but bogeys at the tenth and 17th were upset by another three birdies, two of which came in Amen Corner.
“The birdie at the first got me off to the perfect start and I just played solid after that,” said Lynn, who revealed he’d used a practice round earlier in the week to “pick the brains” of both Sandy Lyle and Ian Woosnam, the winners in 1988 ans 1991 respectively. “I also exchanged a text with [former Ryder Cup player] David Gilford, who shot a 67 in the first round when he came here for the first time,” added Lynn. “He said, ‘don’t be too intimidated by the greens. There are birdies out there so try and be aggressive when you can be’.”
Fowler, making his third appearance in the event, started with a double-bogey 6 then ran up another one at the tenth. But his card also contained a sprinkling of seven birdies. “There were some big setbacks, especially at the first,” he admitted. “But I just had to stay patient because I knew I’d been swinging it well.”
Couples, a perennial component here, is off to a good start once again at the age of 53, while Immelman, instead of the likes of Charl Schwartzel (71) or Louis Oosthuizen (74), is leading the South African challenge heading into day two.