As Canadian golfers are just finding out, sometimes your first round after a long break can surprise you.
Justin Rose didn’t take the winter off, but the Englishman hadn’t played on tour in a month before shooting an opening round seven-under par 65 on a diabolical Augusta National to grab a four-shot lead at the season’s first major.
On a very difficult day for scoring, Rose’s round began like many. The 40-year-old Englishman was two-over par after seven holes before catching fire and pouring in seven birdies and an eagle over his final 11 holes.
“I putted the ball beautifully and read the greens unbelievably well,” Rose said. “If you had said to me walking up the 8th hole (that I’d shoot 65), I’d have said no chance, this course is playing a little too tricky for that, but it’s incredible.”
Bothered by a bad back that caused him to withdraw from Bay Hill at the beginning of March, Rose has been rehabbing and working on his game with Canadian swing coach Sean Foley.
“We’ve been putting in a good bit of work the last couple weeks, and I feel like we’ve fallen upon some clarity in the direction I want to go with my swing,” Rose said. “He literally said to me, ‘Buddy, I don’t know if you’re close or not, but I just know it’s better.’ “
At the beginning of last summer, Rose announced he was splitting with the Burlington, Ont., native Foley — his coach of 11 years — but after going through what he referred to as a wasted season, they are back together. The reunion came last fall, but because of the pandemic the first real work they got was over the past month during the PGA Tour’s Florida Swing.
“He’s obviously a wonderful friend of mine and one of the greatest people I know, and yeah, just really good to be back on board and working hard together and kind of committed to seeing if we could turn the ship around a bit,” Rose said of Foley.
THE BEST OF THE REST
Much of the pre-tournament talk centred on the fast and firm conditions of Augusta National, with the tournament promising to be nothing like last year’s November edition that saw Dustin Johnson set a scoring record at 20-under par.
Until Rose went on his tear, Augusta National seemed intent on reminding everyone that it’s the star of this week. Golfers can be a strange bunch though, and for some, the harder it is the better.
“I think it’s really cool how it was playing, I hope we don’t get any rain,” said Kevin Kisner, who grew up a half-hour away. “It’s a super stressful grind is the best way to describe it. I hit the golf ball as good today as I have in a couple years and walk away with even par.”
Level par was a good score on Thursday, with just 12 of 88 golfers in red figures.
Brian Harman and Hideki Matsuyama are tied for second at three-under par. They are followed by Patrick Reed, Webb Simpson, Will Zalatoris and Christiaan Bezuidenhout, who all shot two-under 70s.
“I think the biggest thing is I just love a challenge,” Reed said after his round. “I love having your back up against the wall and you having to go and produce, try to do something. I love just the satisfaction of pulling off crazy golf shots or the tough up and downs and things like that.”
There is a group of five golfers tied at one under, headlined by three-time major winner Jordan Spieth and Open Champion Shane Lowry.
Mackenzie Hughes and Corey Conners both made it through a difficult day in good position.
Hughes had a tidy scorecard with two birdies against just two bogeys for a level par 72 and sits tied for 13th. Conners was tied for the lead early in the day at two-under before hitting a ball in Rae’s Creek at the par-5 13th and making a double bogey. He finished at one over.
“Had a pretty good first nine, made a few birdies,” Conners said. “One thing sticks out, I made a mistake on 13. I got a little greedy my second shot and ended up hitting it in the creek.”
One of the best ball-strikers in the world, Conners has been working hard on his putting. After switching to a left-hand low grip last September, Conners is having his best putting season of his PGA Tour career.
“I feel good with that club right now, it’s been working well the last number of weeks,” Conners said. “I feel like I’m hitting my lines really well. There’s a lot of tricky putts out here, so that’s definitely important to get the ball started in the right place.”
Mike Weir shot a six-over par 78.
Ian Woosnam is legend. Period.
The 63-year-old who hasn’t played in a year-and-a-half, is coming off back surgery, and thinks he tore his groin earlier in the week. He shot 76 to tie McIlroy, Bryson DeChambeau and Sergio Garcia among others.
“He’s a phenom, one of the shortest guys that ever played professional golf at 5-foot- 4, at his peak,” Bernhard Langer said. “He may be shrinking now, I don’t know. Inch for inch he probably hit the ball further than any human being you’ve ever seen, and with his boxing background, he was just very strong.”
About Woosnam’s injury, the Welshman said he thought about quitting after 11 holes, but was playing too well. He was asked if he was happy with Thursday’s 76.
“I’m playing on one leg really, so yeah,” he answered. “Plus, I haven’t had a scorecard in my hand for 18 months, so I was pretty damned pleased really.”
It’s the 30th anniversary of Woosnam’s Masters win, so he didn’t want to miss out, but considering how he’s feeling, he was asked if he plans to continue on Friday.
“Well, being that I’m stupid, I’ll most probably play, get out there,” he said. “And if it is unplayable, I’ll just have to come in.”
McIlroy seemed a little too pleased after hitting his dad in the leg with his approach shot at the seventh hole. It’s safe to assume there will be a fair bit of father-son banter at the dinner table … Foley is looking good right now. A week after his student Lydia Ko set a women’s major championship Sunday scoring record with a closing 63 at the Inspiration, Rose beats his career low at Augusta by two strokes … Abraham Ancer was penalized two strokes following his round for signing an incorrect scorecard after touching sand with his club in the bunker before a shot at the 15th hole. His one-over 73 became a three-over 75.