AUGUSTA, GA. Seven holes in the Masters, Justin Rose was 2 above par and in no position to panic.
He knew Augusta National in April was no picnic compared to the previous one in November. He thought that if he could get back about the same par by the end of the day, he would be fine.
Rose never expected his best score in his 59 rounds at Augusta National.
No one could have foreseen it either.
Rose made seven birdies and an eagle on a scorching 10-hole stretch for a 7-under 65 opening, giving him a four-shot lead on Thursday in conditions that might only get tougher the rest of the way.
“It’s incredible,” said Rose. “It’s a good reminder that you just never know what could happen out there.”
It started with a nice jump off the hills to the left of the green on the par-5 eighth which mounted a 3 meter eagle. Only two of his birdie putts were outside of 8 feet. He ran a 3 meter par putt on the green he missed. Not bad for a 40-year-old from England playing for the first time in a month after a resting back.
Runner-up twice, including a loss in the playoff to Sergio Garcia four years ago, Rose tied a Masters record by taking at least part of the first-round lead for the fourth time. The other who did that was Jack Nicklaus. The difference? Nicklaus went on to win two of his six green jackets from that position.
Brian Harman, the last player to enter the 88-man field, and Hideki Matsuyama were finishing their rounds of 69 around the time Rose started on a course that was dry and crunchy, on greens that fast that there were brown spots.
Among the 70-year-olds were former Masters champion Patrick Reed and Masters newcomer Will Zalatoris. Jordan Spieth overcame a triple bogey off the trees on No. 9 and got a huge break when his chip hit the pin for an eagle on the 15th instead of running into the water. He shot 71.
There were a lot of red numbers missing from the scoreboard in circumstances so difficult that Garcia said after 76, “I feel like I just got out of the ring with Evander Holyfield.”
Five months ago, during the first Masters held in November due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the turf was so soft that 53 players were below par after the opening round.
Rose shot 65 in a day so tough that only 12 players broke the par, and the average score was 74.5.
British Open Champion Shane Lowry chipped into the water in front of the green from the back of the 15th green. He escaped with a bogey and managed to get a 71. American amateur champion Tyler Strafaci hit a 60-foot putt from behind the ninth green that ended 23 yards on the other side.
Defending champion Dustin Johnson, who set the record at 20-under 268 last year, failed to break the par for the first time since the opening round in 2018. He three-putted for a double bogey on the 18th for a 74.
“I feel sorry for the boys’ first Masters in November, and then they walk out today wondering what’s going on,” Kevin Kisner said after a hard-earned 72.
This was no surprise. Augusta National hasn’t had rain for over a week, and players couldn’t remember when the greens were last so fast during the practice rounds, let alone with a scorecard on Thursday.
“It’s my 10th year, but I’ve never seen the greens so firm and fast,” said Matsuyama. “So it was like a new track for me playing today, and I was lucky to get to know it well.”
And what about Rose? Even in more forgiving circumstances, he would never have fared better than 67.
“I didn’t feel like today was before 65, if I’m honest,” said Rose.
No one needed to be convinced, especially Bryson DeChambeau and Rory McIlroy, among the top players who struggled with the wind and had as many problems when the ball was on the ground.
DeChambeau, the US Open champion who has licked off his chops to bring his super-sized game to Augusta National, only birdie on the 15th hole and shot 76, his highest score as a pro at the Masters. Patrick Cantlay hit into the water on both par 3s on the back nine and shot 79.
“Guys kick themselves out of the golf tournament on Day 1,” Webb Simpson said after a late double bogey forced him to settle for a 70.
Needing a green jacket to finish the Grand Slam career, McIlroy hit his father with a shot on the seventh hole. That was about the most interesting moment in his round of 76. Lee Westwood, who had a few second places in the Florida swing, had a 78.
Rose looked like he was going that way. He made a soft bogey on # 1. He drifted across the green on # 7 with three putts. He was 2 over, but not ready to panic. He knew it was difficult. He also knew he was going in the wrong direction.
“You can’t win the golf tournament today. Even with a 65 you can’t win today,” said Rose. “Of course you can only lose it today. I just reset before that and thought if I could get myself around the same again that would be a good day.”
He hit 5 wood in 10 feet for eagle and a 9 iron against the dangerous left pin at No. 9 to 4 feet for birdie. He drilled a 7.5 meter putt on the 10th and hit 8 to 1.8 meter iron on No. 12. It never stopped. Even from the first cut rough on the 17th, his wedge settled four feet from the hole.
He finished going through the details of that incredible piece, smiled and said, “Sounds easy.”
This is what it looked like. But only for him.