Due to some tricky pin positions, most players in the field struggled to hole putts. The effort left Woods one shot off the clubhouse lead, held by Australian Adam Scott, South African Justin Harding and Spaniard Jon Rahm. Afterwards, Woods didn’t need to be reminded that he opened with the same score for three of his four wins here.
Taking up where he left off when closing with rounds of 65-69 to finish fourth behind Patrick Reed 12 months ago, Rahm joined playing partner Woods in getting off to an encouraging start, as did Rickie Fowler, last year’s runner-up, with a 70.
Rory McIlroy, who is bidding to complete a career grand slam at the fifth attempt by winning this event, opened with a 73. It was an up-and-down affair. Two-over early on the back nine, he’d moved into red figures on the back of three birdies in four holes from the 13th. But two bogeys to finish left him looking a touch dejected at the end.
Wearing a dark blue turtleneck top, Woods strode confidently on to the first tee just before 11am local time and had many in the throng around it gasping with an opening blow that was both long and arrow straight. Having talked bullishly about his game coming in here, it was exactly the start he was looking for and, after opening with a rock-solid par, he quickly moved into red figures with a birdie at the par-5 second.
That was given back at the fifth, which has been extended to 495 yards this year, and he was unable to convert a couple of good opportunities before making no mistake from four feet for a birdie at the ninth to turn in 35. He moved to a couple under with a two-putt birdie at the 13th before making an outrageous 3 at the next, escaping from trees on the left and knocking in a 25-footer.
It was the first time in his Masters career that he’d has been three-under through 14 holes of the opening round. In trees again at the 17th, he was unable to save par there, but his presence on the leaderboard is already ominous after talking about how confident he felt coming in here after a return to winning ways in the Tour Championship in Atlanta last September.
“It was a good, solid start,” said the 43-year-old, who last won here in 2005 and last won a major in 2008. “I played well, hitting a lot of good shots. I missed in the correct spots, which is key, giving myself simple up and downs because of that. I missed a few putts, but other than that it was a good, solid day and I’ve shot 70 three times I’ve won the Green Jacket.”
In the build-up, McIlroy had spoken about how Dr Clayton Skaggs, the founder of CHIP (Central Institute of Human Performance) in Florida, had become an important member of his team. That was evident as he stood close by as the title favourite warmed up on the range while he was also the last person McIlroy spoke to before stepping on to the first tee.
McIlroy has also introduced juggling and meditating into his daily routine. As part of his bid to play things down this week, he said the opening tee shot wasn’t something he’d even thought about. If he had, it certainly wouldn’t have been a nervy one that was heading for a bush well right off the fairway until it hit a fan on the leg. “He owes me one – I’ve saved him two strokes,” joked the uninjured fan. Trying to keep it low, McIlroy’s second shot clipped a branch and he opened with a bogey.
That seemed to set the early tone and, after back-to-back bogeys at the start of the inward nine, he found himself two-over and looking to be out of sorts. He badly needed a straightforward birdie at the 13th, smashed an iron over trees to make another one at the 15th then rolled in a 35-footer for a 2 at the 16th. All of a sudden, his dander was up but it didn’t last long as he finished 5-5.
“I made five birdies, that wasn’t the problem,” said the four-time major winner. “I just made too many mistakes. And I’m making mistakes from pretty simple positions, just off the side of the green at 17 and 18 being prime examples of that.
“Six bogeys out there is a little too many and I’m just going to need to tidy that up over the next few days. I’m going to go to the putting green right now and try to figure out reads more than anything else. I over read a few early on and then I started to under read them coming in. So I will just try to work on that a little bit.”
In contrast to how McIlroy signed off for the day, Scott finished with a flourish, making three birdies in the last four holes, to match his opening score from when he won in 2013. “I got some good numbers into greens,” said the 38-year-old Australian of his gains at the 15th, 17th and 18th. It seemed as though the greens were proving even more difficult than normal and he confirmed that was the case. “I have never seen some of the pin positions today and they were tough to attack,” he added.
This week last year, Harding was missing the cut in the Zanaco Masters in Zambia. The 33-year-old didn’t hold a category for the European Tour when tying for seventh in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic in January to get into Saudi International the following week, finishing joint-11th behind Dustin Johnson. He then won the Qatar Masters a few weeks later and backed that up by finishing second in the Kenya Open, all of which helped him get into the world’s top 50 just in time to secure his debut here.
Two birdies in the opening three holes settled any nerves and he went on to make five in total. “I handled my emotions pretty well,” he said afterwards. “A bit annoying on the last making bogey. But I’ll take it and run if I can. I’m still learning and this golf course is difficult.”
Dane Lucas Bjerregaard, who looked a class act when winning the Dunhill Links Championship at St Andrews last October, carded a 70, as did Canadian Corey Conners as he continued to ride on the crest of a wave. The 27-year-old won a six-man play-off to get into last week’s Valero Texas Open then won that to get into this event – the last man into the field.
“It’s been wild, definitely unexpected, but I’m playing some good golf and really excited to be here and just trying to keep riding the good play,” said Conners. “I had a great day out there today, a lot of fun, and hit some quality shots.”