AUGUSTA, Ga. – Drought, what drought? So it’s been 12 years since a European slid a pale arm into a green jacket. So the glory days of Faldo and Ballesteros and Woosnam seem like the dark ages.
At least that’s the Round 1 quick quote following a good day for the Continent by any measure. Rory McIlroy and Alvaro Quiros lead the European contingent, to say nothing of the entire Masters field, following a pair of feels-like-a-62 65s, followed in short order by the likes of a suddenly resurgent Sergio Garcia and a safely on the ground Ross Fisher.
It is Tour player law that any good round could have been better, but on a clear, cloudless day even McIlroy’s playing partners were feeding the legend: “It could have easily been two or three strokes better,” Jason Day said of McIlroy’s card. “Watching Rory today was special.”
Special? Sure. But we’ve seen this before – a first-round 63 at St. Andrews last year followed by a wind-whipped 80 on Day 2. Pubs across Northern Ireland ran dry that night.
McIlroy is a five-tool guy and every bit the world beater we were led to believe he was, but this is just his third Masters. A continent that won nine of 17 Masters starting in 1980 is hungry for green and knows “Rors” may be their best chance to get off the 12-year schnied, but hardly its only option.
As “plan Bs” go Quiros is a keeper, a megawatt smile combined with crazy length and the type of quick wit golf writers dream of, even on deadline. Almost enough to make Spanish standard bearer Seve Ballesteros beam with pride. Almost.
“Seve has the hands of a surgeon,” Quiros laughed. “I have the hands of a bricklayer.”
And the swing speed of a Formula 1 driver. Paired with Gary Woodland, the new face of American power, Quiros bombed with abandon, blasting driver, 8-iron for birdie. It’s the kind of anecdote that gets green jackets looking for new tee boxes.
More subdued but just as intriguing is Fisher, who could not escape the synergy of the week following a 3-under 69.
Fisher, you may recall, set out at Turnberry two years ago deep in the hunt with one eye on the leaderboard and the other on his cell phone. His wife, Joanne, was back home in England expecting the birth of the couple’s first child, which was four days overdue. Fisher made a quadruple bogey-8 at Turnberry’s fifth and tied for 13th but he made it home in time for the birth.
This time Joanne is back home awaiting No. 2 and, so far, Fisher has avoided a snowman.
“Last time, she hung on and I didn’t, so hopefully I can hang on this time,” said Fisher, who was aboard Lee Westwood’s plane late Sunday that was forced to make an emergency landing when the cabin filled with smoke.
And if all else fails, Europe has Garcia. El Nino used to live for this, playing his best golf when the lights were brightest, but that was a nasty breakup and a dark episode ago.
The Spaniard took a sabbatical to clear his head at the end of last year, drove a golf cart at the Ryder Cup, an exhibition he used to own, and has emerged re-energized. His opening 69 at Augusta National follows an eighth-place finish at Bay Hill.
It is, at the least, a good start for Europe. But there is no escaping the math – it’s been 12 years since Jose Maria Olazabal brought home green. They’ve been close, most recently last year when Westwood came within one poor Sunday start of ending the drought.
Sure, the Continent owns the United States in Ryder Cup play having won six of the last eight matches, and laps the yanks in Twitter posts, followers and 140-word creativity, but majors pay the legacy bills and the Masters is the unofficial first major.
Which makes McIlroy’s opening salvo so promising. Seven birdies, just a single putt longer than 20 feet is light duty at Augusta National regardless of conditions.
As work days go this one felt like a half day.
Sure, it’s just his third trip down Magnolia Lane but he’s an old 21 with a golf IQ observers say is off the charts. He knows his potential. More importantly he knows his limitations. “I feel like I have a lot of learning to do,” he reasoned.
Augusta National is an exam with limitless multiple choices. Every swing is a question – miss short right or long left? Take the 20 footer up the hill over the 6 footer down the hill. Go at the pin on No. 12 or the middle of the green?
For those scoring at home, grade McIlroy on a scale.
The kid took his lumps last year at St. Andrews and studied more, rallying to tie for third place, his third T-3 in his last five majors.
“It was a very valuable lesson in my development as a golfer,” he said.
Wednesday night Quiros ran into his European running mate in a local mall tossing around “a rugby ball.” McIlroy, who drew the ire of a local neighbor when he and his mates started an impromptu game of catch in front of their rented house, says he’s getting better with the American football.
Quiros was a bit more critical. “He was terrible,” landing the punch line with impeccable timing. Asked if he gave the “rugby” ball a toss the Spaniard flashed his signature smile, “I’m too fragile to play the rugby.”
Good times for the Continent.
Early Thursday afternoon McIlroy leaned into his approach shot to the final green, a gaze fixed on his face with shades of Faldo. Moments later he was asked his first memory of the Masters growing up in Northern Ireland.
“It was 1996 . . . Faldo,” he smiled widely.
So forgive the Continent for feeling a tad bullish on its title chances this year. As Ben Crenshaw might say, they have a good feeling about this.
Follow Rex Hoggard on Twitter @RexHoggard