There are various favourites – sentimental and betting – at the Masters each year. But it takes a long time to get from arriving in Augusta to anyone actually playing golf, so somebody has to soak up most of the media sunshine in the interim.
Tiger Woods enjoyed (and, occasionally, really didn’t enjoy) the focus here for 15 years. Rory McIlroy had a turn. He pooched it almost immediately. Just as Jordan Spieth had achieved atmosphere last year, five bad minutes at the 12th ruined his Masters and nearly derailed his year.
Being the man everyone expects to win this tournament is the sort of blessing that is quite often a curse.
But it rarely bites you as quickly as it did this year’s fair-haired boy, Dustin Johnson.
The 32-year-old world No. 1 quit the Masters a minute or so before he was to start it on Thursday. Before doing so, there was a lot of aimless, Phil Spector-ish pottering about between the practice greens and the first tee.
Johnson looked as though he was going to have a try, but thought better of it.
He wandered back toward the clubhouse with a small pack trailing him. Then he seemed to lose patience, stopped and announced to anyone who happened to be standing nearby that he was pulling out.
“It sucks,” Johnson said.
It was about the wittiest thing he’s said here all week.
On Wednesday afternoon, Johnson ran into the garage of his Augusta rental house, intending to move his car. Instead, he took a header off the stairs in stocking feet and did his back in.
Since Johnson has a history of hard partying, golfing conspiracy theorists were coming up with all sorts of wild stuff that might actually have happened. But this one has got to be true. No explanation that stupid could possibly be a lie.
“I can’t swing full,” Johnson said. “I can’t make a normal swing. I could go back to about 80 per cent.”
The implication was that no man operating at four-fifths capacity could hope to compete here. As it turns out, that might have been a miscalculation.
The conditions in Day 1 started out fine. By noon, they were getting blustery. By 2 p.m. – the time Johnson was to begin – they had become positively typhoon-ish. One found oneself standing in the shade under the sprawling oak outside the main clubhouse, noticing for the first time that it appears to be held together by a latticework of steel cables and then deciding to move out of easy crushing range.
As the day went on and the wind swirled, swings became more tentative and the results of them less predictable.
“The only thing keeping the scores from being ridiculous was the softness of the greens,” Canadian debutant Adam Hadwin said. He noted that the best way to gauge the wind was to hope a playing partner shot first, then rush your own approach hoping to correct the error that had just preceded you.
Hadwin finished three over par. On a calmer day, it would have been a disappointment. On Thursday, he seemed pleased with himself at having survived.
The other Canadian rookie, Mackenzie Hughes, had a more difficult time of it at seven over. Barring an honest-to-God miracle, his Masters will end Friday. At four over, Mike Weir looked more assured than he has in years at the Masters.
Up at the top of the leaderboard, the weather flattened out the field, pushing everyone toward competence rather than any one man toward brilliance. Belgian rookie Thomas Pieters rushed out from the pack and then rushed back in just as fast. Ditto for Spieth, and Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler.
At one point in midafternoon, more than six hours after the day had started, 15 players were tied for the lead. That doesn’t happen very often.
Then the wind quieted down and the late starters got the advantage of it. Johnson would have been the very last of them. Instead it was world No. 52 Charley Hoffman who finished with a remarkable seven under. (The rest of the field combined for 273 over.) Once more famous for his mullet than his performances, Hoffman is one-quarter of the way toward something special.
Like Hoffman, most of the guys in the lead tend to have a similar shape and game – wide-bodied, purposeful and built close to the ground.
Second-place finisher William McGirt, a middle-aged Carolinian who looks like a fire hydrant wearing a puffer vest, described his approach thusly:
“I kind of plod my way around the golf course and take what it gives me.”
It was a take-what-you-get sort of day. Many were willing to do so.
As a result, relatively few competitors will feel they blew it on Thursday. Hoffman has the clear advantage going into the second round, but if he stumbles, any one of two-dozen players have a chance.
The only real loser on the day was Johnson.
Backs are funny. Once you’ve injured one, they can get funnier fast. No sport in the world depends on suppleness through your trunk quite so much as golf. Ask Tiger Woods. That’s one very good reason why Johnson would take a pass here.
But he also said that he expected whatever is ailing him right now to be healed in “two days.”
Johnson isn’t quite a late bloomer, but nor is he young. He won his first major last year (the U.S. Open). Going into Augusta, he’d won his three previous tournaments. The timing does not get any more propitious than that.
He’s probably not the champion the Masters needs to assume Woods’s mantle – though tall, handsome and famously married, he has as much charisma as a turnip – but he’d do.
There is something very Tin Cup about his muscular approach to the game. Even the history of overdoing the party favours makes him seem more everyman than most golfers.
As such, this was a huge opportunity to truly stake his claim as the world’s most famous golfer. For reasons only he can really know, he left it untaken. Instead, he got to watch a couple of journeymen take his place.Report Typo/Error
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