The 77th Masters is now 25% complete. What are we to take away from the first round? In my mind 3 storylines emerged Thursday: 1) the remarkable number of pre-tournament contenders who are lingering after 18 holes, 2) Sergio Garcia 3) The outstanding debut of Tianlang Guan, and he is the one we’ll start with, since it’s probably after his bedtime as I write this.
Guan, the 14-year-old Asia-Pacific Amateur champion from China, was paired with 19-year-old Italian Matteo Manassero and 61-year-old, two-time Masters Champion, Ben Crenshaw. Guan is the youngest to ever compete in The Masters and is the second-youngest to ever compete in a major championship, behind only Young Tom Morris at the 1865 British Open. Guan looks 14 years old, lanky and slightly awkward, as we all were in the eighth grade. Whatever awkwardness he might have physically, he apparently has more than made up for in poise.
Guan was the low man, boy, player in his group with a 1-over 73. It would appear that the practice holes he played with Tiger Woods and practice round he played with Crenshaw paid off. Before the tournament I predicted that the boy from China would not break 80 in either of the first two rounds. His 73 bested my prediction for him by 10 shots (shows what I know). He capped his debut off in style with a hybrid to the fringe, 20 feet from the cup on 18. Guan rolled his birdie in and got his first Augusta Roar from the patrons. Incidentally, Crenshaw backed up his fellow competitor with his own birdie, set up by a 3-wood to 12 feet.
As it stands now, Guan is T-45, inside the new cut line of top 50 and ties. He is also well within 10 shots of the lead. On top of that, he is the low Amateur and the talk of the tournament. On ESPN, reporter Tom Rinaldi was interviewing players after their round. After Guan’s round finished, Rinaldi asked each player he interviewed about Guan’s 73 and to a man, each was in awe.
The young man’s performance drew high praise and the assurance from each player that they probably would not have come near Guan’s score when they were his age. Regardless of what Guan shoots Friday, he has already won this week. His birdie at 18 and 73 will be talked about for years. Especially if/when he returns to Augusta as a pro.
Sergio Garcia made his Masters debut 14 years ago at the age of 19. He was the reigning British Amateur Champion and shot even par 72. Today, Garcia matched his best round ever at Augusta National with a bogey-free 66. Garcia is tied with Australian Mark Lieshman at 6-under-par. No offense, to Mr. Lieshamn, but he is not the story, it’s Garcia. 363 days after he publicly declared that he didn’t have the game to win majors, Garcia is looking to be in pretty good shape. Of course, it’s early. Of course, Sergio has often been his own worst enemy when it comes to closing out majors.
The questions for Sergio are these:
1) Can his putting, which was outstanding in round 1, hold up over 72 holes where each successive hole is more pressurized than the previous one?
2) Will Sergio’s head/mind/emotions stay in check? If he has a bad hole and makes a big number because of a bad break will he think “here we go again”.
Sergio will have to prove himself. On the 30th anniversary of Spanish legend Seve Ballesteros’ second Masters win, it would be rather poetic for Garcia to claim his first major this week.
Finally, the number of players thought to be contenders before the Tournament who are within five shots of the lead (aka under par) is astounding, and quite exciting.
Beginning with Tiger Woods, the odds-on favorite going in, who shot 2-under 70. In each of his first three Masters wins Tiger shot the identical score he shot today; he has only broken 70 once in the first round, a 68 in 2010. Tiger drove the ball pretty well, but his iron play was not as sharp. Birdies at 6, 8, and 13 looked like an exciting round was brewing though. However, a bogey at 14 and four pars coming in stalled the momentum. Woods missed the 15th green right with his second shot and chipped to about 6 feet, but the birdie putt did not drop (or even hit the hole). Traditionally, it has been the second and third rounds where Tiger has made the most noise, especially in the years he has won.
Players joining Woods at 2-under include Brandt Snedeker, Lee Westwood, Justin Rose, KJ Choi, and Jason Day. The first four played early Thursday and will play late Friday, as will Woods. Luke Donald, Charl Schwartzel, Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson all managed a 1-under 71.
Only 12 of the 93 players broke 70. Garcia and Leishman are a shot ahead of Dustin Johnson, who would have also been tied for the lead if not for a bogey at the 17th. Fred Couples, Rickie Fowler and Matt Kuchar are among the six players at 4-under. Jim Furyk, Zach Johnson and Adam Scott round out the sub 70 crowd at 3-under.
As Brandt Snedeker said Thursday afternoon, and as tour cliché holds, “you can’t win the tournament Thursday, but you can lose it.” Each of these players under par is in a fantastic spot. It will take another solid round Friday though, especially in soft conditions where the greens are holding approach shots better than some players are accustomed to. Phil Mickelson cited the 16th pin location from Thursday in his post-round interview on ESPN. Phil said that the course is much softer than it has been in past years. He added that the back right pin on 16 usually did not allow a player to fire at the flag and let the ball stick close. But this was the case Thursday, proven nicely by Fred Couples, who hit it to about 8 feet.
Weather will also be a factor Friday. Augusta will get a heavy storm overnight. The course’s Sub-Air system will dry the course out to playable conditions with no problem. However, the already softer conditions will continue. It appears that players who played late Thursday and early Friday will be on the better end of the weather. The wind is expected to pick up Friday afternoon along with some more potential rain.
With the weather making the course longer (because of the softer fairways) and the green more receptive I have to think that a player who is more aggressive in round 2 will have the best results. Rickie Fowler and Phil Mickelson are certainly two of the most aggressive players on tour. I look for them to have a good follow-up Friday. Particularly if the weather forecast holds true and the Friday morning wave will has softer, easier conditions to play in.