Augusta, Ga. – The gallery was thick from the start, as it always is on the first tee of Augusta National Golf Club. And, as is always the case when Tiger Woods sneaks into a Masters tournament, the other members of his team, Victor Hovland or Sander Schaffel, were not there.
They probably should have been – especially for Hovland, the only man of the trio who never won a major or finished runner-up. At the end of the day, after all, he’ll be in a three-way tie for the lead.
“If you’re a little brave and want to push some places you probably shouldn’t, it will punish you very quickly,” Hovland, who scored a seven-under 65, said of the course. He is tied for the lead with Joe Rahm and LIV golfer Brooks Koepka. “So you know there’s a good score, but you can’t force it. You’ve got to let it happen, if you have some makeable putts, you’ve got to make them and then you can get into a rhythm.
But, he cautioned, “It’s one of those things where you push too hard and it backfires.”
He learned a lot in his first three Masters appearances. But the course was far less threatening than usual, especially on Saturday, before a submerged weather system turned Augusta National’s hills so emerald. The winds were calm, keeping the course smooth as they rustled the pines, and dampened the humidity.
With those conditions, Hovland wasn’t going to end up as the runaway lone leader on Thursday, and he didn’t. Rahm, who endured a disappointing March after winning three PGA Tour events in January and February, double-bogeyed the first hole to finish with a 65. And Koepka, who won the LIV Golf Tournament at the weekend, saw off the last two holes. To earn a share of the lead, the sophomore lends a level of credibility to the circuit that is equally needed.
“We’re trying to focus on this and walk out of here with a green jacket,” said Koebka, one of the leaders of the LIV circuit, which is funded by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund.
Koepka, a four-time major tournament winner, drew attention from the tournament’s competition committee Thursday evening, whose chairman said officials had “questioned” Koepka’s caddy and others “about a possible incident on No. 15.”
“All concerned were adamant that no advice was given or solicited,” said chairman James P. Hyler Jr. said in a statement. “As a result, the panel determined that there was no violation of the rules.”
Beyond Koepka, the LIV was a mixed day, with the 54-hole tournament sparking wider debate over whether its players would be ready for the rigors of the 72-hole majors. Cameron Smith, the reigning British Open champion, opened with a tee shot that stopped closer to the ninth fairway than the first tee. By sunset, he had signed for a 2-under-par 70. Three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson was even, as was 2020 winner Dustin Johnson.
But two-time Masters winner Bubba Watson missed the Augusta National cut just once, shooting a six-hole 77. Louis Oosthuizen shot 76 and Bryson D’Chambeau added a six-shot. A US Open win three years ago, he finished with a 74.
However, for all the emotional theatrics that permeated men’s golf when LIV arrived on the scene last year, LIV seemed more about the inaugural Masters of the era.
Fans — excuse us, patrons — plastic cups that sweat more than some players. A woman lay unconscious at the foot of a tree near the 11th fairway, and a little deeper than Amen Corner, 1987 champion Larry Mize, playing his final Masters, approached the 12th tee box and clapped softly. Woods, a 15-time major winner, is, as usual, an attraction by design or by accident.
To an old man in a hat at the 2007 PGA Championship, no. 7 A gallery guard at the crossroads said, “You’re just in time: you can see Tiger tee off.” (Appropriately, Woods won that match.)
He saw Woods and, yes, his drive for a two-over-par 74. But he also saw the handiwork of Hovland and Schaffel, who realized his precise command of the ball.
Howland’s rampage to the top of the leaderboard began on the second hole, a 575-yard par-5 that played the easiest hole at last year’s Masters. His tee shot crashed down the middle of the fairway, leaving him about 209 yards from the pin in his estimation. He held his 6-iron and expected his ball to crash around the front edge of the green.
It went far enough for Hovland, who at times struggled to master the nuances of the short game, to putt for eagle. He then birdied five holes, including the newly lengthened 13th, and had no bogeys.
“There’s no ordinary golf shot here, except on the par-3s,” said 2018 winner Patrick Reed.
“Because of that, you have to have full control of what your club is doing, especially what you’re trying to do at impact,” said Reid, the LIV player who shot a 71 on Thursday. “I feel like Victor has always done it well. If he goes and starts working his putter, he’s going to go out and do what he’s doing on this golf course right now.
Rahm invoked a similar spell on the eighth hole, named Yellow Jasmine, which required 570 yards.
Rahm stood on the tee box and hit, in his estimation, “as hard a drive as I could.” He found himself with about 267 yards left to the hole and shot a draw 4-iron. A perfect bounce, he thought, might put him on the back of the green.
Then he scored less than he wanted.
“It was about 8 and apparently carried in a perfect line and released all the way to 3 feet,” he said. “I was hoping to get really close, but realistically, it doesn’t happen that often. I’m glad it did. I mean, it’s a good swing and it’s a big bonus to finish.
Eagle. By Friday, the leaders would have a two-stroke advantage over fourth-placed Cameron Young and Jason Day.
Augusta National will not be so easy in the coming days. The tournament’s official forecast warned of rain threatening for much of Friday, with thunderstorms likely to lift afternoon play. Saturday’s outlook was even worse, with two inches of rain and 25 mph winds expected.
At 8:18 am Eastern time no. 1 – meeting 30 minutes earlier than originally planned – Koepka said would be his biggest advantage on Friday.
“I think I can punch out a few more holes than everybody else before it starts pouring,” he said.
A lot of people will chase.
World No. 1 golfer and last year’s Masters winner Scottie Scheffler missed a birdie putt on the 18th to finish his day at four under. Rory McIlroy shot a 72, the first time since 2018 that he made par or better at Augusta.
The cut will take place Friday evening and, weather permitting, the line is top-50, plus ties, and DeChambeau, Watson and Woods will suffer more than most after their showings in the first round.
“Most guys are short today,” Woods said. “This is the day to do it.”