Strong winds that were consistently more than 20 mph and reached gusts exceeding 40 mph wreaked havoc at Augusta National Golf Club on Thursday.
Seemingly for all but Charley Hoffman.
Hoffman made nine birdies in the opening round of the 81st Masters Tournament and his 7-under-par 65 was 10 shots better than the average in the 92-player field.
Hoffman leads by four shots over William McGirt of Boiling Springs, five over Lee Westwood of England and six shots over the only other eight players who managed to shoot under par on a trying day.
“That was unbelieveable, just incredible. It’s some golf,” said world No. 2 Rory McIlroy of Hoffman’s round. “I was happy to come in with a 72, then to see he shot a 65. But like they say, they don’t give green jackets out on Thursdays.”
The eight players at 1-under 71 include Sergio Garcia and major champions Phil Mickelson, Justin Rose and Jason Dufner.
The winds were strong enough to blow balls into motion on Augusta’s slick greens on several occasions.
“It's a day you're not going to go low, you just try to fight to stay around par and stay in it,” said Mickelson, whose round included an eagle on the second hole. “I thought anything at par or better was going to be a great score and it is. But because the greens are receptive, you can make birdies and you can stop balls on the greens and make easy pars on a lot of holes. The problem is there's a lot of holes out here that you can have a big number and you just have to be careful of that.”
Hoffman’s four-shot lead is the largest after 18 holes at Augusta since 1955. He made bogeys with three-putts on three of his first five holes to sit at 1 over, then birdied holes 6, 8, 9, 12, 14, 15, 16 and 17.
“It didn’t start off the way I anticipated … and after that I don’t remember missing a putt,” Hoffman said. “Making this many putts you never think it’s going to happen. I’ve learned from the past you can’t be tentative on these greens. You have to be aggressive and not be afraid to knock it 3 feet past. I had good looks all day and was in positions to make putts all day.”
Even when Hoffman made a mistake he escaped unscathed, saving par on the par-5 13th despite hitting his second shot into the water.
It's one of those rounds where you could shoot your way out of the golf tournament pretty quick. And obviously I was just trying to make pars, and while I was trying it make pars, I put myself in position to be able to make birdies. And I was able to convert those birdies and turn it into a fantastic round.
Hoffman, 40, a four-time winner on the PGA Tour who has wins in each of the past two seasons, missed five cuts in his first eight tournaments this year. But in his past four events he has a tie for fourth in the Genesis Open and tie for second in the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
“I step on this property and it just feels special,” Hoffman said. “I’m rolling in with some confidence with a second and a fourth, and seeing the ball roll in the hole is always special.”
Hoffman is playing in his fourth Masters. He tied for ninth behind winner Jordan Spieth in 2015 after being no worse than fourth through the first three rounds.
“I hit the ball as well as Jordan or anyone else but they made more putts than I did,” Hoffman said. “The putter’s rolling for me right now so hopefully I can keep it going.”
Obviously going to sleep on the lead at a major championship here at Augusta National is not going to be the easiest thing. I look forward to it, and I look forward to the challenge the next three days.
What kept the course more playable despite the strong winds were greens that were receptive, in part because of rain both Monday and Wednesday. Westwood made five consecutive birdies on holes 13-17 before a closing par.
Coastal Carolina alumnus Dustin Johnson, the world’s No. 1 player who has won his last three starts, withdrew from the tournament before teeing off with a back injury.
With Johnson out of the tournament, McIlroy, a four-time major champion, and Spieth were considered the co-favorites.
McIlroy, who can complete the career Grand Slam with a win this week, made the turn 3 over but birdied holes 13, 15 and 16 to move into the top 12 at even-par 72.
Spieth, the 2015 Masters champion who has finished second in his other two tournament appearances, was even par through 14 holes before making a quadruple-bogey 9 on the par-5 15th hole with one approach into water and a second over the green. A birdie on the par-3 16th with a tee shot to 2 feet and 18-foot par putt on 18 helped Spieth finish with a 3-over 75.
“You think of it as a birdie hole, obviously being a par 5,” Spieth said, “and unfortunately I still thought of it as a birdie hole today and it really isn't when you lay up.”
Thursday marked the second consecutive Masters round in which Spieth made a quadruple bogey on the back nine. In last year’s final round, he held a five-stroke lead at the turn before putting two balls into Rae’s Creek on the par-3 12th hole to make a 7 en route to a tie for second behind winner Danny Willett.
“I'm going to probably need to play something under par tomorrow, which puts a little bit extra, added maybe bit of pressure that I wouldn't have put on tomorrow, because I was thinking even par for the two days was a good score,” Spieth said. “And obviously now 3 over, I feel like I need to snag something tomorrow.”
A few players made runs before stumbling late. Among them were Thomas Pieters of Belgium and Matthew Fitzpatrick of England.
Pieters reached 5 under through 10 holes in the morning but dropped five strokes to par on his final eight holes with double bogeys on holes 12, 15 and 18. “The wind's picking up and it's not really consistent,” Pieters said. “If you catch the wrong gust at the wrong time, then you look stupid, like I did on 12. But that's just Augusta, I guess.”
Fitzpatrick was at 3 under before making a double bogey on the 18th hole, missing a 5-foot bogey putt.