Firm, fast Augusta National punishes field in Masters opening round

Rory McIlroy's struggles to start out strong at the Masters have continued this week.

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AUGUSTA, Ga. — Between the ceremonies, the smiles and the overflowing optimism, Thursdays at Augusta National always begin with promise. But at some point every Thursday — in particular this Thursday — things stop being nice and start getting real.

For Sandy Lyle, it was the quadruple bogey on 4 after he bladed a bunker shot into the woods. For Viktor Hovland, it was just moments after his name was announced, when he took seven strokes to complete the opening hole. For Rory McIlroy and his career grand slam hopes, things officially got real when his approach on 7 beaned his father in the back of the leg en route to a third consecutive bogey. Rory knows better than most: a Masters can spiral out of control on a Thursday front nine.

It was a day of frustration and white-knuckle driving for many of the best players in the world, save for Justin Rose and his preposterous afternoon 65. The browned-out greens (or are they greened-out browns?) added a touch of fire this course has been lacking for years. Look no further than Bernd Wiesberger’s first putt on the 15th, which traveled 85 feet, never even glanced at the cup and ended up swimming in the pond short of the green. From a similar position on the same hole, Shane Lowry used a wedge and found the same result. 

Fred Couples, soothsayer of most things Augusta National, promised that a 70 or 71 would be a “heck of a score,” this week. Once again, take Freddie at his word out here. Only 12 players shot under par while 29 failed to break 76. All the more reason to be impressed by Rose, whose seven under total still included a pair of bogeys. He finished off with a torrid run, playing the final 11 holes in nine under, and sits four clear of an incredibly bunched field.

As for the rest, a sense of bewilderment grew throughout the day. Kevin Kisner played Amen Corner — he swears — in three different wind directions, making a triple, a bogey and an eagle. “I hit the golf ball as good today as I have in a couple years and walked away with even par,” he said afterward. “So that will tell you how much of a grind it is.” Hudson Swafford played from the first group off in just a breath of wind, carding a 73 he dubbed, “awesome.” Rest assured, McIlroy’s 76 in April was much better than his 75 in November.

Five months removed from a week that set scoring records perhaps forever, Thursday’s opening round was the 7th-toughest opening day of the last 20 years. Ask around and a handful of wounded egos were stuck blaming the wind and a lack of commitment.

“It’s classic back nine at Augusta,” Henrik Stenson said. “You’re standing on a hole where you feel like you’ve got wind behind you. You’re looking to the right, and one pin is going 45 degrees in a different direction and the other one is going 45 in the other direction. You just start spinning. What am I going to do?”  

Stenson birdied every par-5 and held on tight. He’s tied for 22nd but admittedly in survival mode. 

No player kept a clean card and the leaderboard showed it. Bryson DeChambeau didn’t make a birdie until 15. Jordan Spieth’s 71 is a great start but only in the Woulda-Coulda-Shoulda category after a triple bogey from the left trees on 9. Dustin Johnson killed his own afternoon rally with a three-putt for double on 18 and a 74. The list goes on with Sergio Garcia and his 76, Sungjae Im and his 77, Lee Westwood and his 78, and Patrick Cantlay and his 79.

Bryson DeChambeau’s 2021 Masters began with a 76 Thursday.

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From confusion to consternation, the iconic property tweaked the minds of the world’s best, leading to a general line of questioning: Is it too tough? Most golfers didn’t think so.

“Keep the conditions really firm and fast and continue to get firmer and faster,” Corey Conners said after turning in 33 and limping in with a 40, much like a number of his competitors. “If it does rain, I think it will soften things up a little bit, but we’ll see how it goes. The golf course is in amazing shape. It’s playing, I’m sure, just as all the players want it right now.”

Firm, fast, and, according to some, even fantastic.

Sean Zak

Golf.com Editor

Zak is a writer and host for various GOLF.com video properties and podcasts. Check out his travels on Destination Golf and his latest thoughts on the Drop Zone Podcast:

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