Not even a Jordan Spieth charge could spare the blushes of Sergio Gárcia. What Augusta giveth, Augusta taketh away. Masters drama arrives in the most varying of forms.
Gárcia, the defending champion and an individual for whom nothing could apparently douse an upbeat Masters mood, was front and centre of an extraordinary scene on the return to the course which yielded his greatest triumph. The Spaniard has entered the record books after taking 13 strokes at the par-five 15th. It was the joint highest score ever on a single Masters hole and the biggest tally – by two – on that hole. Amateur golfers the world over nodded in quiet appreciation of what Gárcia encountered.
In golfing context the detail is almost too gruesome to revisit. Gárcia, who was two-over par at the time, attempted to find the putting surface in two with a six iron. He found water, just as was the case the four subsequent times he played with only a wedge in hand.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” said a shellshocked Gárcia. “It’s one of those things. I feel like it’s the first time in my career where I made a 13 without missing a shot. Simple as that. I felt like I hit a lot of good shots and unfortunately the ball just didn’t want to stop.”
Gárcia did little to hide his disdain for the pin-placement which caused him so much trauma. “Well, you saw it, I don’t think I need to describe it,” he added. “It’s not the first time it’s been there, so it’s not new, but with the firmness of the greens and everything, I felt like the ball was going to stop and unfortunately for whatever reason it didn’t want to.
“I had 206 yards [the first time]. I had six iron. I thought it was perfect, straight at the flag. If it carries two more feet, it’s probably good. And if it carries a foot less, it probably doesn’t go off the green and stays on the fringe. Then I kept hitting good shots with the sand wedge and unfortunately I don’t know why, the ball just wouldn’t stop.”
That point, however, was undermined by the 15th playing as the second easiest hole of this Masters round. Nobody else came close to matching Gárcia’s tale of woe. Doc Redman, an American amateur who was in Gárcia’s group, was almost bashful about what he had witnessed. “It was tough, you don’t want to see anyone go through that,” said the 20-year-old. “It was very difficult and you wouldn’t wish that on anyone.”
Gárcia recently named his baby daughter Azalea after the 13th hole here and which was so crucial to his maiden major victory. Suffice to say Firethorn – the 15th’s label – won’t be on the shortlist when number two arrives. In cold reflection, the Spaniard at least has that Masters win as consolation. Lesser players would be defined by their unlucky 13.
Gárcia responded after his debacle admirably and produced a birdie two at the 16th. The glass-half-full reporter who asked the 38-year-old whether he took anything from the playing of Augusta National’s three closing holes in minus one was met with a short shrift. “Not really,” said the Spaniard. The 81 was the highest opening round by a defending champion in Masters history, triggering a Friday battle just to survive the halfway cut.
Spieth played the opening seven holes in level par, with no hint whatsoever of what was to come. That is if one ignores the Texan’s record at Augusta. Spieth, by this stage two under, birdied the 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th in racing to the top of the leaderboard. His 66 – Spieth dropped a shot at the last – means a two-stroke lead after 18 holes. In 2015 he became only the fifth wire-to-wire champion in Masters history and appears of a mind to do precisely the same again.
Rory McIlroy had not posted a sub-70 opening round here since the 65 which took Augusta by storm in 2011. That changed in the 82nd edition of the Masters, with the Northern Irishman’s 69 hinting strongly at better things to come. McIlroy missed chances to improve on that score, albeit he saved par smartly from 13ft at the penultimate hole having found a greenside bunker with his approach shot and even more impressively at the last having pulled his second shot into the galleries.
“Everything worked well today, I’m really pleased with that start,” said McIlroy. “The greens were so much firmer and faster today than what we had been practising on so that was a bit of an adjustment. There have been a few good scores out there but nobody is going ridiculously low.”
Tony Finau’s participation was in serious doubt after an Alan Shearer-esque celebration of a hole in one during Wednesday’s par-three competition went wrong. The American suffered a dislocated ankle which he immediately remedied but still had checked by way of an x-ray and an MRI scan. With both clear, Finau proved the adage of beware the injured golfer as he signed for a 68. Matt Kuchar lies alongside Finau at four under.
“It’s nothing short of a miracle, if you ask me,” Finau said. “I could barely put any pressure on it, I could barely walk, but obviously after the MRI we knew there was no real damage. So at that point, I knew I was going to play.”
Tiger Woods rightly reflected on an “up and down” 73 where he was “sloppy” on the par fives, which he played in an aggregate of even par. It remains a stretch of the imagination to believe Woods can win here. Tommy Fleetwood, who partnered the 14-times major champion, outscored Woods by a shot. Marc Leishman, the third player in the morning marquee group, is another stroke better off.
Justin Rose finished late in the day on level par, the world No 1, Dustin Johnson, was one over and Paul Casey compiled a 74 for two over. Henrik Stenson’s 69 hinted at a belated upturn in his Masters fortunes. Haotong Li, the first ever professional from China to earn a Masters spot through automatic qualification by virtue of his third place in the Open, matched Stenson’s score. Nonetheless, this was to prove a day when the highest number grabbed the greatest attention.