AUGUSTA, Ga. – Phil Mickelson did something he’d always wanted to do in 20 years of playing the Masters.
No, not that trek through the woods on 10, though more on that later.
Despite having the last tee time of the day, at 1:53 p.m. EDT, Mickelson was at Augusta National six hours early Thursday to watch Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player hit the ceremonial first shot. In his green jacket, no less.
“I’ve been wanting to do that every year, and this worked out great because I had the last tee time,” Mickelson said. “It’s an experience that I really enjoyed – watching those guys hit it, what they have meant to the game of golf. They’re the Big Three and they brought the game to where it is. Anybody who has a chance to come to the Masters, it’s worth getting up early to watch those guys tee off.”
Seeing Mickelson on the first tee meant a lot to Palmer, Nicklaus and Player, too. The three combined to win 13 Masters among their 34 major titles.
“A nice compliment,” Nicklaus said.
“I thought it was wonderful that he came out,” Palmer added.
Mickelson called the three “charismatic,” and the same could be said about him.
After all, it’s not every golfer who could prompt a gallery to set aside their beverages and form a search party for a lost ball, as fans on No. 10 did Thursday.
Mickelson’s tee shot sailed so deep into the woods he hit a provisional before going to hunt for the original. He then spent several minutes scouring the brush and pine straw for the lost ball, joined by dozens of fans. He never did find it, using the provisional and making a triple-bogey-7 that left him at 4 over for the day.
“Throughout the round on the front nine, I hit three or four shots in spots … where I know I can’t miss it. And strategically made some mistakes,” Mickelson said. “I knew walking off the green at 4 over I wasn’t going to get them all back before the round was through. But if I could just get a couple back, I felt like I could get some back on the following day.”
Get a few back he did. He’s at 2 over after a birdie on 18, seven strokes behind Lee Westwood.
“So as poorly as I played and some of the poor shots I hit and the mishaps, missing on the wrong spot, I’m right there,” Mickelson said. “With a hot round tomorrow, I’ll get right back in it for the weekend. I know that heading in I’ve been playing well. So I’m going to fire at it tomorrow and see if I can do that.”
HOME COOKING: Here’s one way to ease the Masters jitters: Pretend you’re at home.
PGA champion Keegan Bradley has most of his family on hand for his Masters debut. His aunt, LPGA great Pat Bradley, is in town, and he got to see his own nephew before he teed off Thursday. Not only did his mother, Kaye, caddie for him in the Par 3 contest Wednesday, she cooked his favorite dinner later that night.
“A special chicken that she makes and corn and rice,” he said, “so it felt like home.”
Every little bit helps at Augusta National, which is notoriously tough on rookies. Only three first-timers have won, and none since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979. But Bradley looked quite comfortable among the Georgia pines.
After a messy double-bogey on No. 1, he didn’t drop another stroke until 18. He was back to par by the time he teed off on No. 5, holing out from the front right bunker on the par-3 fourth.
“That was one of the best shots I’ve ever hit,” Bradley said. “That was really fun to see it go in and hear that famous Augusta roar.”
At 1-under 71, he is four strokes behind leader Lee Westwood.
“Out here you’ve got to stay really patient, and I know that I’ve got a lot more holes to push,” Bradley said. “I stayed real patient, which I’m very proud of.”
MUD BALLS: If the school of hard knocks is closed, Stewart Cink has another place in mind for those Masters players who want to learn how to deal with mud on the ball.
“The school of bogeys,” Cink said.
An opening day that featured soft, score-able conditions at Augusta National came with a price: Sopped grounds that caused balls to plug, not roll, when they hit the fairway and occasionally collect clumps of mud. The whole idea of lift, clean and place at majors is more or less verboten, so the players must play them as they lie.
Very early in the round, it was clear this would be an issue. Adam Scott, playing in the sixth threesome of the day, had a huge clump of mud on his ball when it hit the green, about 40 feet short of the back, left pin location.
He wasn’t alone.
Lucas Glover shot 3-over 75 and said the whole day was a mud-fest.
“You pull a couple shots, start second-guessing yourself some more,” Glover said. “You hit a ball, land in the mud, and all of the sudden, it’s a brain buster.”
The typical advice for those faced with mudballs is that the ball will go the opposite direction as the side of the ball where the mud lays. So, if it’s clumped on the right side, the ball should fly left.
“So, what do you do? Do you want to aim way right on No. 13?” Cink said, laughing at the thought of aiming for the small tributary of Rae’s Creek that runs in front of that green. “You just have to take your chances and hope for the best and know there’s a margin of error you have to take into account.”
AMATEUR TIME: There’s a familiar face atop the leaderboard.
The amateur leaderboard, that is.
Hideki Matsuyama, who won low amateur honors after tying for 27th last year, shot a 1-under 71 in the first round of the Masters on Thursday. That tied him with Patrick Cantlay for best round by an amateur, and also was his second-best score in five rounds at Augusta National.
“I’m really glad to have the good results with the round, but at the same time I still see there is some improvement I have to make,” Matsuyama said. “So I would like to do my best to improve that in coming around.”
Matsuyama was one of the feel-good stories at Augusta National last year. A student at Tohoku Fukushi University in Sendai, he was practicing in Australia when his city was hit by the earthquake and tsunami that devastated the northeast coast. He debated whether he should even come to the Masters, but decided playing well here was the best way he could help.
And play well he did. Matsuyama was the only amateur to make the cut, and his 68 on Saturday was the lowest by an amateur since James Driscoll’s in the first round in 2001.
Matsuyama, who turned 20 in February, earned a return trip to Augusta by defending his title at the Asian Amateur. He also won the Japan Collegiate Championship and the World University Championship, and made the cut in five events on the Japanese tour.
But don’t look for him out here full-time just yet.
“I don’t have any plan for that,” he said when asked about turning pro. “I just want to concentrate on my play here so that I will be able to do my best.”
SERGIO’S FINGER: Two bogeys in his last three holes wasn’t the only thing bothering Sergio Garcia.
The Spaniard is playing with an infected nail in the middle finger of his left hand, which affects how strongly he grips the club.
“It didn’t feel great,” said Garcia, who got to 2 under with three straight birdies on Nos. 13, 14 and 15, only to give two of those strokes back on 16 and 18. “Obviously it’s playable, but it’s uncomfortable when I grip a club.”
He finished at even par.
Garcia wore a small bandage over the nail. He said he’s been trying to speed the healing by using antibiotic cream and soaking his finger.
“It just has to heal,” he said.
The injury is the same Garcia had last May, when he had to withdraw from a British Open qualifier because of an infected nail. It was a low point for Garcia, until he narrowly got into the U.S. Open, then the British Open, and slowly worked his way back into the top 25 in the world ranking.