AUGUSTA, Ga. — There was nothing friendly about the opening round of the 78th Masters. Disasters were lurking everywhere, even at the shortest hole on the course. Instead of green jackets, members should have been wearing Johnny Cash-black.
What should have been a nice start to the first major of the year instead looked like a Sunday afternoon at the Augusta National Golf Club, with firm, slick greens and treacherous pin locations causing fits for some of the world’s best players.
It didn’t seem to bother Bill Haas, who made six birdies after an opening bogey to shoot 68 and take a one-shot lead after 18 tricky holes. And it didn’t seem to disrupt a pair of former Masters champions — Adam Scott and Bubba Watson.
But it certainly got under the skin of others, including Phil Mickelson and golf’s other two reigning major champions. And there are still three more rounds to go.
“The setup was much more difficult than it has been in the past,” said world No. 2 Rory McIlroy, the tournament favorite without Tiger Woods in the field. “I think that they really wanted to do that. They didn’t want the scores to get too low.”
On a day when the conditions were as perfect as the manicured fairways, only four players managed to post sub-70 rounds, and 19 players were under par. While those aren’t exactly U.S. Open-like numbers for the first round, it was still a nasty welcome mat for the Masters, whose first-round pin locations are typically set with Southern hospitality.
The only player to avoid a bogey was Watson, the 2012 Masters champion, who shot 69 with three birdies to finish a shot behind Haas.
“I’m coming back with the take that I want the jacket again,” said Watson, who finished tied for 50th as defending champ last year. “I’m coming back with a different mindset, full of energy. I haven’t had any media [attention] this week because nobody cares about the guy a couple of years ago.”
Watson is tied with Scott, the 2013 champion, who only had to battle the difficult pins, not his nerves; and the player he beat in a playoff to win the green jacket two years ago, 2010 British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa.
“I tried to smile my troubles away when it gets difficult,” said Oosthuizen, who came back after an opening-hole bogey to jump-start his round with a birdie at the par-5 second — the hole where he made double eagle in the final round in 2012. “But it’s going to be tough for everyone and for a Thursday it was pretty slick on the greens.”
Haas, a five-time winner on the PGA Tour, seemed oblivious to the trouble. After beginning his round with a bogey, he came right back with a 15-foot downhill birdie at the par-5 second. When he bogeyed the par-4 17th, he came right back with a birdie from the right rough at the final hole.
Haas rolled in a pair of 20-foot birdie putts at the 240-yard fourth and the 450-yard seventh.
“Seeing those putts go in is fun, especially out here,” Haas said. “The trick is probably trying to enjoy it when you’re banging your head against the wall, and you feel like you’re doing your best and you’re just not scoring.”
Scott started the opening round the same way he ended last year’s playoff with Angel Cabrera — with a birdie. His only mistake came in Amen Corner at the 155-yard 12th — the shortest hole on the course — when his 9-iron tee shot landed in Rae’s Creek, resulting in a double bogey.
“There’s no doubt winning the Masters last year had me a little more comfortable on the first tee than I’ve ever been in the past,” said Scott. “I didn’t have the legs shaking and the nerves jangling for six or seven holes like usual. That was enjoyable for me.”
Scott wasn’t the only player to stumble at the devilish par-3. Spain’s Miguel Angel Jimenenz shot a front-nine 32 before a double-bogey at the 12th left him at 1-under 71. Five other players who had subpar rounds made bogey at No. 12 — Oosthuizen (69), Kevin Stadler (70), Brandt Snedeker (70), the ageless Fred Couples (71), and McIlroy (71).
Stadler, who won the Waste Management Phoenix Open in February to get into the Masters, was one of three players at 70 making their first appearance at Augusta National. The other rookies are Jimmy Walker, a three-time winner this season, and Jonas Blixt of Sweden.
Walker did it with a back-nine flurry, after a bogey at the par-5 13th with four straight birdies that began with a 15-footer at No. 14.
No Masters rookie has won the green jacket since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979.
“I had to stay patient,” said Walker, who leads the FedEx Cup standings on the PGA Tour. “I felt like I had really given quite a bit away there. But I just stuck with it. I knew I shouldn’t have given up. I knew I had to stay with it and see what happens. And then it happened.”
Patience was hard to come by at Augusta National, especially for other reigning major champions.
Mickelson, the British Open champ, made a triple bogey at No. 7 and a double bogey at the par-5 15th to shoot 76, matching his highest first-round score in 22 Masters appearances.
PGA champion Jason Dufner shot 80 by watering two shots and making 9 at the par-5 13th.
And U.S. Open champ Justin Rose shot 76, as that trio finished a combined 16-over par.
“We got a long way to go, and I got a lot of work to do and I don’t feel like my game is off, I really don’t,” Mickelson said. “I don’t feel like I got to go to the range to find something. I feel very confident with the way I’m hitting it.”
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Gary Dulac is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.