AUGUSTA - Lee Westwood is alone atop the leaderboard after the first round of the Masters that seemed destined for a bad finish.
Westwood had a run of four consecutive birdies from the fifth hole to the eighth at Augusta National on Thursday. The birdie-run ended with a par on the ninth as his manager Chubby Chandler looked on from behind the green. Westwood shot 32 on the front and backed it up with a 35 on the back to shoot 67, his best round at the Masters.
“There were no weaknesses out there today in my game,” Westwood said. “I hit it close, hit a lot of fairways and rolled in some nice putts.”
Storms were forecast to blow through Augusta National toward the end of Thursday’s rounds and there was fear that not all players would finish. The weather held off but not all of the players could say the same.
Early leader Henrik Stenson and betting favourite Tiger Woods brought dark clouds of their own to the 18th hole.
Stenson was leading the tournament at 5-under par when he teed off on the final hole. A quadruple bogey later, the big Swede had nearly given it all back. His eight on the 18th is the worst score ever on the hole during the Masters. The last person to make an eight there was Camilo Villegas in 2007.
Stenson said even though his score was low he could see trouble coming.
“After 11 I didn’t hit one fairway off the tee, and that’s obviously going to cost you at some point,” he said. “Though I didn’t expect it to cost as much as it did on 18.”
Woods started his Masters with two big hooks off the tee, the second one finding a hazard at the par-5 second hole. Both times Woods pulled off difficult recovery shots to save par.
“I hit some of the worst golf swings I’ve ever hit today, and that’s all right,” Woods said. “I just hung in there and stayed very patient.”
Woods was hanging in there all day. After missing three birdie opportunities at Amen Corner Woods was at 2-under par and looking to close out the round. A bogey at 17 and then his second penalty stroke of the day at 18 saw him play Augusta’s final two holes in 2-over to finish at even par for the day in a tie for 29th.
Also at even par is Canadian Mike Weir who followed a 1-over front nine with a 1-under back nine. Weir missed several makeable putts early in his round Thursday but back-to-back birdies on 12 and 13 have him in a solid position going into the second round.
Late starters Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson fought off early trouble to finish strong and remain in the hunt.
McIlroy’s problems began at the first hole where he made double bogey. It didn’t take him long to get it back though, he birdied the second and third to get back to even par. His start to the back nine was just as bad, bogeying the par-4 11th and the par-5 13th.
Sitting at 1-over heading to the 17th, McIlroy finished birdie, birdie to shoot 71 and leave the course Thursday with a good taste in his mouth.
“It’ll make dinner taste a lot better tonight, the 22-year-old said. “Definitely happy coming off the course in red numbers.”
Phil Mickelson shot 1-over on the front nine before blowing up on the par-4 11th hole with a triple bogey pushing him to 4-over and threatening to derail his quest for a fourth green jacket. Birdies at 13, 15 and a dramatic 25-foot birdie putt at 18 got him back to 2-over par for the day saving his opening round and maybe his tournament.
“That birdie on 18 was a big momentum birdie for me because I can get out here and birdie 1, 2 or 3 and I’m right back at even par,” he said. “Then I start trying to catch the leaders. That’s kind of the game plan right now.”
With soft conditions from daily rain some players — including Mickelson — were calling for low scores. Augusta National proved up to the task during the first round and tough pin placements had something to do with it.
Westwood said he received a text from his caddie Billy Foster saying the setup Thursday was tough.
“He used some slightly more flowery language than that, but we’ll stick to tough,” Westwood said.
The No. 3 ranked player in the world enters Friday’s round with a one-shot lead over former British Open champ Louis Oosthuizen and Swede Peter Hanson who shot 4-under par 68s to open their 2012 Masters.
There are six player tied for fourth at 3-under.