Looking in at The Masters

I’ll be dropping in and out during the day and the rest of the week to comment on the Masters. Here are a few (very) early thoughts.

10 a.m. The start of the first round was delayed for almost an hour before Arnold Palmer rightfully blasted the ceremonial first tee shot in front of Masters Chairman Hootie Johnson, who so unceremoniously tried to keep Arnie from playing with his hurtful letter a few years back.

Anyway, an early delay, as light as it was, speaks volumes about what could be in store with this year’s Masters. A wet, 7,480-yard monster is going to play into the big hitters’ hands, i.e. Tiger Woods, so expect to see the leaderboard dominated by the game’s longer players off the tee.

Could somebody like Zach Johnson, who won last year’s Masters by laying up on every par 5, make his way up the board? Maybe, and with soft greens, wedges can be dangerous at Augusta National.

But Johnson was a freakish 11 under out of a possible 16 under in those par 5s last year (and he still won with a 1-over 289), and those softer greens mean the players hitting shorter irons than their competitors have that much more of an advantage.

11:32 a.m. Neil Dougherty leads by one shot at 2 under, the Aussie who led for a while last year before blowing up. Heath Slocum, who has six top 10 finishes already this year, got it as low as 3 under but has fallen back to 1 under.

Not a whole lot going on because most of the top players haven’t teed off yet, but the course doesn’t look like it’s giving away many shots early. But how about Ben Crenshaw’s start? Even par through four holes. Nice.

11:58 a.m. You have to give Johnson credit. The defending champ comes out showing no nerves, making birdie on the what some are calling the toughest opening hole in golf. He’s tied for the lead with nine others.

Meanwhile, Tiger is off. Let the coronation begin!

1:14 p.m. There are a lot of reasons to love the Masters. It’s the most fan friendly of all major tournaments because it’s at the same course every year. People who know golf can recall what each hole on the back nine looks like because they’ve seen them all so much.

In the same vein, Masters veterans are always a threat at Augusta. They know the course so well that they can overcome deficiencies in their games for at least one week and sometimes catch lightning in a bottle. Ben Crenshaw won when he was past his prime. Jack Nicklaus’ signature win in 1986 had a lot to do with his experience.

Even though Augusta National is a monster now, past winners can make their way around the track. Mark O’Meara is two shots back of Ian Poulter and Luke Donald and the lead through 15 at 1 under. Ian Woosnam is one back through three holes at 2 under. Craig Stadler is 1 under through 3.

Sure it’s early, but you never know in Augusta. That’s what’s so magical about it.

1:23 p.m. O’Meara birdies 16. He’s at 2 under and the leader in the clubhouse for “Biggest Story of the First Round.”

2:24 p.m. Boy, you know it’s early. Sandy Lyle is tied for the lead through five holes at 2 under.

Woods is playing a quiet, methodical round, parring every hole on the front nine.

3:05 p.m. Phil Mickelson is off to a great start, making birdie at the tough first hole. Poulter got into the house with the low round of the day thus far, carding a 2-under 70 on the strength of an ace at the 16th.

Sixteen players are under par so far, but it’s misleading, as no one is lower than 2 under, only a handful of guys have even reached 3 under for a time. After a wet fog and no wind in the morning, you would’ve thought a couple of 68s could’ve been thrown up there in the early going. Not so. This could be another brutal week as the course firms up.

3:17 p.m. Speaking of 3 under, there goes Zach Johnson following a birdie at 13. Put a tournament — any tournament — in Georgia, and Johnson has a chance.

3:31 p.m. It’s an even year, so maybe it’s Lefty’s year again. Mickelson made a ridiculous birdie on 1, banging the flagstick after putting off the pine straw for a miracle 3. He then birdied No. 2, so he’s at 2 under, behind co-leaders Johnson and Justin Rose, perhaps the best player under 30 not to have won a major.

And yes, you can include Sergio Garcia in that group.

3:57 p.m. Tiger drops a shot and Rose picks up another. And Lyle is hanging in there at 2 under.

The storylines are emerging.

4:04 p.m. Back-to-back bogeys for Woods, who falls to 2 over. This will only make the story that much better when he comes back, right?

Can’t you already hear the word “grinding” in his post-round comments?

4:34 p.m. Just when you think he might be in a little trouble, Woods reminds you why one day he’ll be considered the best to ever play the game. After back-to-back bogeys, he comes back and eagles 15 to get back to even. He’s four back, but this is only the first round.

4:59 p.m. My personal investment into the Masters comes with the play of Brandt Snedeker, whom the Herald profiled during the 2005 U.S. Open in Pinehurst.

Snedeker, who was a former player under Sanford’s Press McPhaul at Vanderbilt, was also a teammate of Luke List, the former U.S. Amateur runner-up that the Herald followed for the duration of the tournament.

Snedeker, who was on the Nationwide Tour at the time, proved to be an even better interview, and last year, after he won the Greensboro PGA tournament, gave me one of the best answers I’ve ever had to open an interview. After getting in touch with him to catch up, I said, “You probably don’t remember me, but I was at the Open in ’05, one of the guys from the Sanford Herald who knows Press.”

To which Snedeker, in what is becoming more known as his trademark humor, said, “Are you kidding? Yeah, I remember you guys. Why wouldn’t I? Nobody else wanted to talk to me that week.” (The “other guy” is the Herald’s Jonathan Owens, who did a piece on Sneds.)

So yes, I’m rooting for the guy. Forever.

And here he is, one shot back of Trevor Immelman and Rose in the Masters.

5:47 p.m. Snedeker gets up and down from the right greenside bunker on 15 and HE’S TIED FOR THE LEAD!

Objectivity is officially out the window.

6:09 p.m. Lyle misses a 12-foot par putt on 18 to finish at even par 72.

I know Lyle’s 50, but doesn’t it look like he’s aged in dog years?

He’s shooting 79 on Friday.

6:12 p.m. Bear with me for a while, but Snedeker made a tough up-and-down at 17 to remain at 4 under and tied for the lead. That one had me refreshing the online leaderboard.

6:31 p.m. Snedeker bogeyed 18 to finish one back of the lead at 3 under. Meanwhile, Lefty gets it going again with a birdie at 13, moving him back to 2 under with a couple of birdie holes ahead of him.

6:58 p.m. A few other names creeping up the leaderboard — Jim Furyk (-2), Lee Westwood (-3) and Retief Goosen (-1). Lefty dropped at shot at 14, then hit a loose drive on 15, forcing him to lay up. Eccchhhh.

7:14 p.m. Lefty’s gettin’ loose. After missing a makeable birdie after laying up from under the trees at 15, Mickelson hooks one to the fringe on the par-3 16th. At this point, and at 1 under, Lefty just needs to hurry up and get into the house. But he made a HUGE 15-footer for par.

Meanwhile, Furyk makes birdie on 15 to go to 3 under and The Artist Formerly Known as Ernie Els also makes birdie to get to 1 over.

7:32 p.m. Westwood moves into a share of the lead at 4 under as Paul Casey, with two top 10s in his three previous Masters, holes out with a 71.

A very European flair to the top of the leaderboard.

8:14 p.m. Rushing to get into the house, Furyk and Els struggle on 18, as does Westwood, who three-putted 17 to fall to 3 under and narrowly escapes bogey on 18.

Final thoughts: Besides being overjoyed that Brandt Snedeker is in the hunt for at least a day, the old adage that you can’t win a major on the first day, but you can certainly lose it applies to Woods and Mickelson, in particular. While there are plenty of capable names ahead of those two, they are the true stars of the game, and the ones we will always follow.

Luckily for golf fans everywhere, they are right where they needed to be, at the very least, to contend for another green jacket.

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Filed under Designated Hitter, Sports, Sports columns, The Sanford Herald

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