The Masters That Never Was, Part V: A surprise 18-hole leader, and Rory and Brooks lock horns
Ed. note: This is the fifth installment of The Masters That Never Was, a fictional account of how the Masters Tournament might have played out had it been conducted this week at Augusta National Golf Club.
AUGUSTA, Ga. — When Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tom Watson gathered on the 1st tee — Ceremonial First Shots, registered trademark! — shortly before 8 on Thursday morning, there were many familiar faces around. Fred Ridley, of course, as club chairman and the host of this annual event. Barbara Nicklaus and a small army of grandchildren. Tree Tremont and Jim Nantz were also on hand, quietly making the scene unobtrusively, given their fame. Hope Hicks, attending her first Masters as Tiger’s new communications chief, was on her toes, taking it in.
And there was one slender, fit man standing on the back of the tee, Mike Weir, winner of the 2003 Masters and a month shy of turning 50. He was blending right in with the fans, except for the fact that he was on the live side of the gallery rope.
Nicklaus spotted the Canadian golfer and walked over to him.
“Don’t you have something better to do than watching old men hit slap-fade drives that count for nothing?” Nicklaus asked.
“I really don’t,” Weir said.
“What time you playing?” Nicklaus asked.
“Following you guys,” Weir said.
That meant Weir and his two playing partners had the first tee of the day, going off at 8:30.
“Well, play well,” Nicklaus said.
“Jack, when you’re done here, you mind if I asked you a question?”
“Of course,” Nicklaus said.
On cue, Ridley called the three legends to the tee. Each man got a long introduction and a rousing ovation. Nicklaus played first and hit a slap-fade that went about 220 yards.
Player played second and hit a line-drive hook that landed practically on Nicklaus’s ball then scooted up the fairway, right up the hill, for about 30 yards, finishing almost in the trees on the left. Player’s follow-through was so emphatic that his right foot finished one giant step in front of his left. In his finish, he looked more like a fencer than a golfer.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the man won the career grand slam,” Watson said, bowing in Player’s direction. They hadn’t always been friends and it wasn’t clear that that comment was actually a friendly gesture, either.
About 12 seconds later, Watson launched a high, long drawing drive, impressive in every way, even though it only went a few yards past Player’s ball.
Coming off the tee, Player said to Watson, “You want to keep going, laddie?”
The comment wasn’t entirely friendly either.
“Game on, old man,” Watson said. He turned to Ridley and said, “You mind if we play the front?” For many years, Sam Snead and Byron Nelson had played the front nine after their ceremonial tee shots.
“Be my guest,” the chairman said in the most unscripted moment Augusta had seen in years.
“Pick up my ball,” Nicklaus called to them. “It’s from the limited-flight collection I’m developing.”
He turned to Weir and winked. The two men then stood in the middle of the 1st tee as the crowd dispersed and had an intimate conversation, the contents of which could not be heard.
The surprise first-round leader at the Masters is part of the tournament’s tradition. Mike Donald in 1990 shot a first-round 64. Alvaro Quiros in 2011 opened with a 65. Charley Hoffman in 2017 opened with the same score. But nobody could have anticipated what Mike Weir did in the first round of the 2020 Masters. Since 2011, he had only made the cut one time as his game vanished. But on Thursday, he shot 65. He had perfect weather and conditions: still air, warm air by the turn, virginal greens. Still, it was an extraordinary round and by the end of the day, and the unexpected change of weather that came in the afternoon, Weir was the leader by two shots.
When the lefthander came into the press building for a sit-down interview, he recited a long list of reasons to explain his excellent and unexpected good play, including his unusual decision to putt righthanded.
“The putter was a gift from a friend of mine, but I’d rather not say his name,” Weir said. “Let’s just say he’s the R in KKR. And George Roberts is a good putter. Whoops!
“He didn’t actually urge me to putt from the right. He just said, ‘Sometimes, in any business, you need to look at things in a new way. Golf is your business, Mike.’”
A reporter asked Weir what he and Nicklaus discussed on the 1st tee.
“I don’t know if Jack would want me to say,” Weir said.
The interview’s moderator leaned into Weir’s ear and whispered something.
“OK,” Weir said. “He said, ‘Be the ball.’”
“Jack said he got that from Mr. Jones in ’59. Be the ball. Nothing to do with the movie.
“You know that practice-range story they tell about Jack, when he goes to the range, looks at a ball sitting on it, stares at it for a minute or two, then says, ‘I’m done here?’ That’s be-the-ball. You become the ball and the ball becomes you. Instead of fighting your golf ball you are your golf ball.”
“Did you know any of this when you won here?”
“No,” Weir said.
“Do you think it will work tomorrow?”
“We shall see.”
Weir’s lead was never really threatened in the breezy afternoon, although Rory McIlroy and Brooks Koepka, paired together, both shot 67, combining for three eagles and eight birdies. “It was like watching two heavyweight boxers throwing punches,” said Jon Rahm, part of the powerhouse group that featured the top three players in the World Ranking. “In fact, I thought they might throw some for real.”
The bad juju began the night before, at the annual awards dinner for the Golf Writers Association of America, which is the Oscars of golf writing … minus the good-looking people. Koepka picked up his 2019 Player of the Year award and offered brief remarks that had the room buzzing: “I’d like to thank all of you, the writers, because clearly you’re the smartest people in the game,” he said. “It’s honestly a joke that Rory won the PGA Tour’s Player of the Year award — I mean, he folded in the biggest events of the year. You know that. I know that. Deep down, Rory knows it, too. I asked the Tour to release the ballots, because I think the fix was in. They refused. What, are there hanging chads? It’s fine, I need this kind of slight. Gets my red-ass on.”
Koepka’s words immediately alighted social media. At 1:42 a.m. McIlroy responded with a cryptic Instagram post, featuring a video of a running stream and the words of a Chinese proverb: “The tree was dead but still the children climbed it.”
Knowing they would be spending the next two days together, Koepka approached McIlroy on the driving range ahead of their 1:49 tee time and offered his hand for a conciliatory shake. McIlory did not take it, instead closing his eyes and appearing to go into a meditative trance. As he would say later, ”I didn’t want to get sucked into Brooks’ melodrama. I just focused on reciting my sutras and doing my Kegel exercises.”
Throughout the opening nine holes they continued to ignore each other. The breaking point finally came on the long walk between the 9th green and 10th tee when Koepka’s girlfriend Jena Sims ducked under the rope to give her man a smooch but inadvertently speared McIlroy with a stiletto heel.
“Watch it, lady,” McIlroy growled.
Ignoring Sims, Koepka stepped to McIlroy and suddenly the four-time major champions were nose-to-nose. “Say that one more time,” Koepka barked, “and I’ll make you cry to your mama, like Bryson.”
Fisticuffs were avoided only when Billy Payne, the former chairman and former Georgia Bulldog football star stepped between the rutting champions, placed an arm around each and guided them toward the 10th tee. “Fellas, we just lost another giant in John Prine,” he said as they walked. “I want you two to reflect on my favorite lyric of his: ‘If dreams were lightning, thunder were desire/This old house would have burnt down a long time ago.’ Now, why don’t you both apply a little more soul to what you’re doing.”
Having turned at two over, Koepka birdied his way through Amen Corner, eagled 15, made a curling 40-footer on 16 and then holed a bunker shot at the last to shoot 29 on the back nine. McIlroy, after opening the round with a trio of three-jacks, made 196 feet worth of putts over the closing nine holes, roaring home in 30. On the final green Koepka and McIlory embraced and walked off arm-in-arm, evoking the iconography of the Duel in the Sun.
“This place puts all of us on edge,” McIlroy said after the round. “At least, all of us who haven’t won here. I think Brooks and I were just acting out. But I’m pleased with how we both responded. I think it stands us in good stead. I know from experience you can easily shoot yourself out of the tournament on Thursday. But looking at this leaderboard, a lot of big-time players got off to a hot start. I think it’s going to be a helluva championship.”
Indeed, Tiger Woods finished 2-3-2 for the most unlikely 70 in the long history of the Masters tournament.
It was left to Koepka to put an eventful first round in perspective. “I had always associated those lyrics with Bonnie Raitt, but now that I know it was actually a man who wrote them I am going to reconsider everything I ever thought I knew about storytelling,” he said. McIlroy, standing nearby, gave an approving look. “It’s kind of a metaphor for this tournament,” Koepka continued. “We have a nice groove going, but the story has yet to be written.”
The Round 2 recap from The Masters That Never Was will be published on GOLF.com on Friday evening.
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