The 2019 Masters got off to a rousing start that perhaps could be heard over in Aiken, South Carolina, some 18 miles to the east. What with Brooks Koepka shooting a sizzling, birdie-only 66 and Bryson DeChambeau tying him, but on a wild ride in which he parred only six holes, and with Phil Mickelson taking third and saying that what didn’t happen may have been more critical than what did happen in his 67 — his best start since 2010, when he won his third green jacket.
For the galleries, a catching of the breath was advisable.
Mickelson had birdied Nos. 2 and 8, then made the turn and immediately dodged a full-fledged disaster. He artfully saved a bogey out of the trees at the 10th and saved another out of the water at the 11th. His point: The bogeys were what did happen, but what didn’t happen? “I made two great bogeys that should have and could have been doubles,” he said. Round-killing, confidence-killing double bogeys. After the close calls, he roared home, birdieing five of the last seven holes — 12, 13, 15, 16 and 18 — for the 67. The Masters book, noting his wizardry and his age — just weeks from 49 — called him Methuselah of the Masters and Merlin the Magician of the Masters.
If the 66s by Koepka and DeChambeau, both seeking their first Masters, came down to a question of degree-of-difficulty, it probably was a coin toss. Koepka, playing in the final group, authored the only bogey-free round of the day. DeChambeau rode the wild wind. Koepka started with one birdie on the front nine, at No. 2, and then on the back five birdies in six holes. First at the 10th, then at the treacherous par-three 12; “…an easy two-putt birdie on 13 … then 14, a nice little putt; … then on 15, blasted it long right of the green and got it up and down.” It was pretty much vintage Koepka, the one who won the U.S. Open in 2017 and 2018, and the 2018 PGA Championship.
“I just enjoy the big stage,” Koepka said. “I enjoy major championships. I mean, that’s what you’re remembered by.”
DeChambeau had a wild ride that started birdie-bogey-birdie from No. 2. He loosened up with birdie-bogey from No. 8, then roared over the last seven holes in six under, going birdie-eagle-bogey from the 12th, then birdieing the last four. And he came within two tap-ins of going two strokes lower.
His eight-iron tee shot at the par-three 16th barely missed being an ace, and at the 18th, his six-iron uphill approach from behind the bunker rolled right to the hole and glanced off the flagstick. Said DeChambeau, ever the physics major out of Stanford: “My terminal velocity was too high.”
Most of this happened before Tiger Woods even teed off in the next-to-last threesome with China’s Haotong Li and Spain’s Jon Rahm. Woods shot a halting two-under 70, going birdie-bogey-birdie at Nos. 2, 5 and 9, then birdie-birdie-bogey at 13, 14 and 17.
“I feel like I played well today and I controlled my golf ball all day,” said Woods, whose last Masters was in 2005 and whose last major was the 2008 U.S. Open. “I’ve shot this number and won four coats, so hopefully I can do it again.” The sentiment was laudable but the facts were askew. When he won his last green jacket in 2005, he’d opened with a 74. “The whole idea,” Woods said, “is to try and peak for four times a year. And so I feel like my body’s good and my game’s good, it’s sharp, so just got to go out there and execute.”
Some wry twists opened this 2019 Masters. Rory McIlroy, going for the last leg of his personal career Grand Slam, didn’t quite balance the books. “I made five birdies — that wasn’t the problem,” he said. “I just made too many mistakes.” Meaning six bogeys. He shot 73. Justin Rose was among the favorites because he had returned to No. 1 in the Official Golf World Ranking and also because of his play in recent Masters. He shot 75. “Drove it left the first few holes,” Rose said. “Never really found my rhythm.” Thailand’s Kiradech Aphibarnrat posted a hard-won 69. After a bogey at No. 4, he patiently battled the course for pars. “I’ve been waiting for my first birdie for quite a while,” he said. Then at the par-five 13th, he put a three-iron second from the right rough 16 feet from the cup and made the eagle, a warm-up for birdies at 15 and 16.
Six amateurs got the thrill of playing in the Masters.
South Africa’s Jovan Rebula, an Auburn University standout, on finally being on the first tee at Augusta National: “I mean, it was nerve-racking, for sure,” he said. “The butterflies were going…”
Norway’s Viktor Hovland, by way of Oklahoma State, found a new way of describing the experience. “So it was kind of surreal … I almost had to kind of get out of my own head.”
First-round leaders: Brooks Koepka 66, Bryson DeChambeau 66, Phil Mickelson 67, Dustin Johnson 68, Ian Poulter 68, Kevin Kisner 69, Kiradech Aphibarnrat 69, Justin Harding 69, Adam Scott 69, Jon Rahm 69.