Masters 2023 first round review: Flamboyant Viktor Hovland shines, Tiger Woods 'sore', Rory McIlroy needs to 'tidy up'
It was so bad, in fact, that you felt there could even been a danger of the tournament committee deciding to impose a two-shot penalty - I’m kidding, of course - before he’d signed his scorecard and, boy, was it an impressive effort as the event’s 87th edition got off to a captivating start in Georgia.
Under broken clouds, Hovland produced what was his most polished performance so far in this event and his best in relation to par in any of the four majors. Sparked by an eagle at the second, the 25-year-old Norwegian carded a sensational seven-under-par 65, which was matched two groups later by Spaniard Jon Rahm and also Brooks Koepka after the LIV Golf man finished birdie-birdie. To put Hovland’s day into context, he’d never broken 70 here in 12 previous rounds.
In doing so on this occasion, he came within two shots of the lowest opening salvo in the event’s history, which belongs to Greg Norman, the man who now makes headlines as LIV Golf’s CEO and commissioner having made his hot start in 1996.
“There was a lot of pressure this morning,” said Hovland, flashing his boyish smile, of playing with Woods, having not done so before. “I was obviously very excited and to lean on my short game (not normally his strength) to shoot such a good score was special.”
The double Hero World Challenge winner, who was the leading amateur on his debut in 2019 before tying for 32nd the following year then sharing 27th spot 12 months ago, already has seven professional titles to his name.
Without running the risk of being too critical when you take his age into account, his record in the majors had been a bit disappointing up until last year’s 150th Open at St Andrews. But, after sharing the lead with Rory McIlroy heading into the final round and eventually ending up joint-fourth behind Cameron Smith, that was something of a watershed moment.
He certainly wasn’t intimidated by having Woods in particular but also Xander Schauffele, the Genesis Scottish Open champion, in his group at the start of the 2023 major campaign, following that early eagle with birdies at the sixth, eighth, ninth, 11th and 13th in a bogey-free effort that was saved by a gutsy ten-foot par putt at the last after finding two bunkers.
“It was very fun today,” admitted Hovland. “Got off to a nice start, obviously making eagle on No. 2 and just kept hitting great shots on the front nine and made some putts, and before I knew it, somehow I was six-under through 11, and yeah, just kind of coast in to 65. So that was awesome.”
Rahm’s opening effort was the lowest in the event’s history after starting with a double-bogey 6, which stemmed from a four-putt. Having recovered from that setback by making an eagle, which was set up by a peach of an approach to around four feet at the eighth, and five birdies, the world No 2 beat his previous best score here by two shots.
“I hit every putt how I wanted to feel-wise and the roll, too, but the speed was off,” said Rahm of his first-green woes. “Walking off the green, I said to Adam [Hayes, his caddie) that I just had to be cautious of the speed of the greens.” He’s had four top-ten finishes in this event in six starts. “I think it’s a game that compliments my game and I am feeling confident,” who would join Sam Snead, the 1952 winner, as the only players to win a Green Jacket after starting with a 6.
Koepka, winner of the most recent LIV Golf event, signed for eight birdies, including two early on then three in the last four holes. “Honestly, I think it was just getting off to a good start,” said the four-time major winner of what had provided his momentum. “Anytime you're two-under through three, it's a good start. Kind of just piggy-backed off that momentum and very happy the way I played.
“Drove the ball really nicely. Left it in some good spots. Even missed quite a few putts. I think I missed a short one on six, eight, nine, ten - they were all kind of inside ten feet. So could have been really low but I'll take it, seven-under is pretty good.”
Following the completion of Koepka’s round, the tournament committee questioned his caddie, Rickie Elliott, and others in the group about a possible rules incident on the 15th. That was about Elliott possibly letting Gary Woodland’s caddie know what club Koepka had hit for his second shot but, as all those involved were adamant that no advice was given or requested, it was deemed that there was no breach of the rules.
At the end of what could possibly have been the best opening day in major history, the players sitting in the top 17 ties includes 14 major winners, two Olympic champions and 13 of the top 19 in the Official World Golf Rankings.
The ever-improving Cameron Young - he finished second in last year’s Open and has been knocking at the door on the PGA Tour, most recently when he lost in the final of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play - opened with a 67, as did rejuvenated former world No 1 Jason Day. “I think I executed our plan quite well,” said Young after signing for seven birdies, including three to start and two in the final four holes.
Defending champion and world No 1 Scottie Scheffler is in a group on 68 that also includes Schauffele, Sam Burns, winner of that WGC Match Play, Shane Lowry and amateur Sam Bennett.
Becoming the first players to achieve the feat in 20 years, both Bennett and Burns started birdie-eagle, with the latter adding a birdie at the third for good measure in the company of Rory McIlroy.
In his ninth attempt to complete a career grand slam, McIlroy never really came close to finding top gear but, after making back-to-back birdies at the 15th and 16th then following a bogey at the 17th with a good par save from around eight feet at the last, it certainly wasn’t a disastrous day, as McIlroy himself admitted.
“I just need to sort of tidy it all up,” said the world No 2, who is bidding to join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Woods as the only players to win all four majors. “I didn't feel like I was too far away today. I made five birdies but just a couple of too many mistakes on the card.”
Having made less of those, 2015 champion Jordan Spieth, two-time major winner Collin Morikawa, Tony Finau and Justin Rose all opened with 69s to have the leaders in their sights, with PGA champion Justin Thomas alongside US Open title-holder Matt Fitpatrick. Showing signs of playing better golf than he’s been producing in the LIV Golf League, three-time winner Phil Mickelson is also in red figures after a 71, one more than Open champion Smith.
Having struggled on the greens before holing a 30-footer for a birdie at the 15th then one from much closer for a 2 at the 16th, Woods had to settle for a 74, matching efforts from fellow former champions Sergio Garcia and Charl Schwartzel, as well as 2020 US Open winner Bryson DeChambeau.
“I didn't have very good speed early,” said Woods of the greens. “I had two three-putts, and consequently I'm a couple over par. I didn't hit my irons close enough today. I didn't give myself very good looks. Need to do a better job of that going forward to hopefully get myself back in this tournament.” As for his damaged right leg at the end of one of golf’s most physical tests, the 47-year-old said it was “sore”.
On a day when Irish amateur Matt McClean briefly held the early lead before having to settle for a “disappointing” 77, Lowry equalled his best start in the tournament with a 68, which was illuminated by a burst of three straight birdies from the seventh. “I'm pretty happy with myself,” declared the 2019 Open champion. “Felt like I was in control of my ball out there today. It was nice.”
Fred Couples, the 1992 winner, signed for a 71 at the age of 63. “It was a good day. It was a fun day,” said the American, who is making his 38th appearance and, as always here, played a practice round with Woods - Rory McIlroy, too - earlier in the week.
Twenty years after becoming the first left-hander to win this event, Canadian Mike Weir signed for a 72, playing the back nine on his own after Kevin Na withdrew - world No 8 Will Zalatoris did likewise later before teeing off due to an injury - at the turn due to illness after they had been first out in a two-ball. “I played like a leader today,” said 52-year-old Weir.
A day after finishing 1-1 in the Par 3 Contest, it was 6-6 on this occasion for Irishman Seamus Power.
All in all, it was a gripping day and, with bad weather about to move into the area, the second one will start 30 minutes earlier than scheduled, meaning the first group heads out at noon UK time.
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