'Never seen it like this': Augusta a beast on Day 1

By Ryan LavnerApril 7, 2017, 12:00 am

AUGUSTA, Ga. – This is Masters No. 32 and competitive round No. 119 for Fred Couples.

Over the years, he has seen plenty of good days here. When the sun is warm, the conditions benign. When the ball flies forever. When the roars rattle the pines.

But this was not one of those days. Not even close.

“It was hard. It was windy. I’ve never seen it like this,” Couples said.

Never seen it like this?

He shot 76 in the opening round in 2000, when the wind howled and the greens were even firmer.

He ran up three consecutive scores of 76 or worse in 2007, when the winning score was over par for the first time in more than a half century.

Sure, those days tested his mettle too, but apparently they were nothing like Thursday at the Masters, when the high temperature barely crept above 60 degrees and the wind gusted to 40 mph and another former Masters champion called the conditions “borderline” and only 11 of 93 players (including the unconscious Charley Hoffman, who shot 65) ended the day in red numbers.

Masters Tournament: Scores | Live blog: Day 1 | Full coverage

Couples used all of his guile to shoot 73 and sighed afterward: “I couldn’t have really shot much of a different score.”

“And Freddie was brilliant,” Paul Casey said.

These conditions were taxing for every player in the field – the Round 1 scoring average was 74.98, the highest since 2007 (76.19) – but especially so for Couples, 57.

When the wind whips like this, he can’t hit his trusty hybrid clubs, because they balloon into the air. And he can’t come out of any shots, because if his patented cut shot starts right, in a stiff left-to-right breeze, it “goes forever” in the wrong direction.

“It was really a semi-nice day for Augusta,” Couples said, looking up at the partly cloudy skies. “But to come and play in this at 2 p.m. is going to be brutal.”

Play was painfully slow, and yet no one complained about the pace. Every player took his time, waited until a gust subsided, and then pulled the trigger, hoping for a lucky guess.

Brandt Snedeker took nearly five minutes to hit his tee shot on the devilish 12th.

“Anyone else want to hit this shot?” he said.

Thomas Pieters said ill-timed gusts make players “look stupid,” like he did on 12. He hit 8-iron, plenty of club, and didn’t even reach dry land, his tee shot splashing down in Rae’s Creek and leading to a double.

“Sometimes you have to back off five times,” Pieters said after an eventful 72 that included six birdies, two doubles and two bogeys. “I know that might give you a penalty shot or a warning, but if that’s what it takes, then that’s what you’ve got to do.”

And there always seems to be more uncertainty at Augusta, where mistakes are magnified and the punishment for a miscalculation can be severe.  

“The tough part here is that a lot of it is shielded,” Jordan Spieth said. “So trusting how much wind is up there, when obviously if you’re five yards off on this golf course you could be in a very, very bad location. That’s the toughest part.”  

The par-5 15th doled out plenty of punishment.

Historically, it’s the easiest hole on the course, a 530-yard par 5 that plays downhill. But a stiff wind back into the players’ face made it unwise to even try and reach the green in two shots, leaving an awkward third shot from a downhill, sidehill lie.

Spieth had 98 yards. He used a wedge that imparted too much spin and sucked his ball back off the front of the green, into the creek. He moved about 20 yards closer, clubbed down, and knocked his fifth shot over the back of the green, leaving a nasty, downhiller that is nearly impossible to get close. He chipped on and three-putted for a quadruple bogey-9.

“I was stuck in the 15-is-a-birdie-hole mentality,” he said, “and it bit me a little bit.”

But Spieth wasn’t the only player to encounter trouble there. Only 14 birdies were made on the par 5, and its 5.215 average (with seven doubles or worse) was the highest in tournament history.

“You can play some tennis there,” Casey said. “You’ve just got no margin for error.”

With the hole tucked on the left edge, players would have liked to hug the trees down the right side to gain the best angle of attack into the green. On a calm day, that’s a simple task. When it’s blowing 30, not so much.

“You can’t get the angles you normally would,” Casey said.

Kevin Kisner hit driver and a 3-iron to lay up – normally, that’s what he chooses to reach the green in two shots. He stood at the top of the hill and watched in disbelief as Adam Scott hit a 4-iron for his second shot.

“He said it went 15 yards backward at the peak of its flight,” Scott said. “He watched it go back toward me.”   

And the fun was just beginning, as players then hit what is normally a little wedge shot into a sliver of green.

“You’re trying to hit these small targets, and the wind’s going from 15 to 20 to 40” mph, Kisner said. “It’s just incredible trying to hit those numbers. It felt like British Open gusts.”

The bad news, of course, is that Friday’s forecast calls for similar conditions, if only slightly warmer.  

Keeping scores respectable Thursday – two of the three rounds in the 80s were shot by amateurs – was the receptiveness of the greens after an inch and a half of overnight rain. But with plentiful sun, a strong wind and Augusta’s SubAir system, it’s firming up quickly.

“Personally,” Couples said, “I don’t want it to be like this for four days, if I’m here four days.”

And neither do his wind-burned peers. 

Getty Images

What's in the bag: CareerBuilder winner Rahm

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 22, 2018, 10:37 pm

Jon Rahm defeated Andrew Landry in a playoff to earn his second PGA Tour title at the CareerBuilder Challenge. Here's what's in his bag:

Driver: TaylorMade M4 (9.5 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Fairway wood: TaylorMade M3 (19 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Irons: TaylorMade P790 (3), P750 (4-PW), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Wedges: TaylorMade Milled Grind (52, 56 degrees), Milled Grind Hi-Toe (60 degrees), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Putter: TaylorMade Spider Tour Red

Ball: TaylorMade TP5x

Getty Images

Strange irked by Rahm-Landry friendly playoff

By Jason CrookJanuary 22, 2018, 9:45 pm

Curtis Strange knows a thing or two about winning golf tournaments, and based on his reaction to the CareerBuilder Challenge playoff on Sunday, it’s safe to say he did things a little differently while picking up 17 PGA Tour victories in his Hall-of-Fame career.

While Jon Rahm and Andrew Landry were “battling” through four extra holes, Strange, 62, tweeted his issues with the duo’s constant chit-chat and friendly banter down the stretch at La Quinta Country Club, where Rahm eventually came out on top.

The two-time U.S. Open champ then engaged with some followers to explain his point a little more in depth.

So, yeah ... don't think he's changing his perspective on this topic anytime soon ever.

Getty Images

Randall's Rant: The Euros won't just roll over

By Randall MellJanuary 22, 2018, 9:36 pm

The Ryder Cup may not be the King Kong of golf events yet, but you can hear the biennial international team event thumping its chest a full eight months out.

As anticipation for this year’s big events goes, there is more buzz about Europe’s bid to hold off a rejuvenated American effort in Paris in September than there is about the Masters coming up in April.

Thank Europe’s phenomenal success last weekend for that.

And Rory McIlroy’s impassioned remarks in Abu Dhabi.

And the provocative bulletin board material a certain Sports Illustrated writer provided the Europeans a couple months ago, with a stinging assault on the Euro chances that read like an obituary.

McIlroy was asked in a news conference before his 2018 debut last week what he was most excited about this year.

The Ryder Cup topped his list.

Though McIlroy will be trying to complete the career Grand Slam at Augusta National come April, he talked more about the Ryder Cup than he did any of the game’s major championships.

When asked a follow-up about the American team’s resurgence after a task-force overhaul and the injection of young, new star power, McIlroy nearly started breaking down the matchup. He talked about the young Americans and how good they are.

“Yeah, the Americans have been, obviously, very buoyant about their chances and whatever, but it’s never as easy as that. ... The Ryder Cup’s always close,” McIlroy said. “I think we’ll have a great team, and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.”

McIlroy may have been talking about Alan Shipnuck’s bold prediction after the American Presidents Cup rout last fall.

Or similar assertions from TV analysts.

“The Ryder Cup is dead – you just don’t know it yet,” Shipnuck wrote. “One of the greatest events in sport is on the verge of irrelevancy. The young, talented, hungry golfers from the United States, benefitting from the cohesive leadership of the Task Force era, are going to roll to victory in 2018 in Paris.”

European Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn won’t find words that will motivate the Euros more than that as he watches his prospective players jockey to make the team.

And, boy, did they jockey last weekend.

The Euros dominated across the planet, not that they did it with the Ryder Cup as some rallying cry, because they didn’t. But it was a heck of an encouraging start to the year for Bjorn to witness.

Spain’s Jon Rahm won the CareerBuilder Challenge on the PGA Tour, England’s Tommy Fleetwood started the week at Abu Dhabi paired with American and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and won the European Tour event, and Spain’s Sergio Garcia won the Singapore Open in a rout on the Asian Tour.

And McIlroy looked close to being in midseason form, tying for third in his first start in three months.

Yes, it’s only January, and the Ryder Cup is still a long way off, with so much still to unfold, but you got an early sense from McIlroy how much defending European turf will mean to him and the Euros in Paris in September.

The Masters is great theater, the U.S. Open a rigorous test, The Open and the PGA Championship historically important, too, but the Ryder Cup touches a nerve none of those do.

The Ryder Cup stokes more fervor, provokes more passion and incites more vitriol than any other event in golf.

More bulletin board material, too.

Yeah, it’s a long way off, but you can already hear the Ryder Cup’s King Kong like footsteps in its distant approach. Watching how the American and European teams come together will be an ongoing drama through spring and summer.

Getty Images

Quail Hollow officials promise players easier conditions

By Rex HoggardJanuary 22, 2018, 9:14 pm

Quail Hollow Club - a staple on the PGA Tour since 2003 - debuted as a longer, tougher version of itself at last year’s PGA Championship, receiving mixed reviews from players.

The course played to a lengthened 7,600 yards at last year’s PGA and a 73.46 stroke average, the toughest course in relation to par on Tour in 2017. As a result, it left some players less than excited to return to the Charlotte, N.C.-area layout later this spring for the Wells Fargo Championship.

It’s that lack of enthusiasm that led officials at Quail Hollow to send a video to players saying, essentially, that the course players have lauded for years will be back in May.

The video, which includes Quail Hollow president Johnny Harris and runs nearly five minutes, begins with an explanation of how the first hole, which played as a 524-yard par 4 at the PGA, will play much shorter at the Wells Fargo Championship.

“I had a number of my friends who were playing in the tournament tell me that tee was better suited as a lemonade stand,” Harris joked of the new tee box on the fourth hole. “I doubt we’ll ever see that tee used again in competition.”

Harris also explained that the greens, which became too fast for some, will be “softer” for this year’s Wells Fargo Championship.