AUGUSTA, Ga. – Sound the alarm, Adam Scott has nothing to lose.
That should seem disconcerting for 96 other men looking to capture this 78th Masters.
“Having won last year, I think in some ways has taken a little pressure off me as I teed up today and kind of felt like, ‘what was the worst that can happen? I’m still going to be a Masters champion,’ ” Scott said Thursday after an opening 69 left him in a second-place tie, only one shot behind leader Bill Haas.
This is a common refrain from previous major winners. There are truckloads of pressure on most top-ranked players to win that maiden major. Once it finally happens, a weight is often lifted.
In fact, just two days ago Phil Mickelson was preaching to the press about how much easier it was to win jacket Nos. 2 and 3 after winning his first in epic fashion in 2004.
“I have won this thing,” Mickelson said. “I know how to win it and it’s a confidence and momentum-builder when you can look back on that. It’s a huge thing to have already done it.”
Scott is in this type of zone.
There’s little doubt that having one jacket in his closet has allowed him to be more comfortable, especially during an opening stretch where he made four birdies in the first 10 holes. In the past, Scott admitted to nerves and knees knocking on Augusta’s historic first tee. Now it’s booming drives, precise iron shots and smooth strokes with that infamous broomstick putter.
The opening-round score marked the fourth time in the last five competitive rounds that Scott has shot 69. Each of the last three winners of the Masters shot 69 in the first round and each of the last six winners has shot an opening score in the 60s.
“It was really how you hope to come out and play at any major, and especially the Masters,” he said. “I’m not going to complain about my round.”
Sure, Scott hit 14 of 18 greens, 10 of 14 fairways and took 30 swats with the putting wand, but there was one swing the 33-year-old Aussie would love to have back.
In the heart of Amen Corner, walking from the 11th green to the 12th tee box, Scott received a standing ovation, a customary practice from Masters patrons to Masters champions.
Minutes later Scott completed his worst swing of the day and deposited a 9-iron shot into Rae’s Creek. He took a drop, chipped to 5 feet and missed the bogey putt.
“I just lost a little focus on that shot and didn’t commit fully to it and paid a price on that one,” he said.
Such hiccups are bound to happen occasionally around this place.
Although Scott made birdie on the 14th hole, he three-putted both par 5s on the back (Nos. 13 and 15) to make par when birdie seemed likely both times. He salvaged par on the last hole after hitting his approach over the back of the green. He got up and down by converting a longish par putt.
Still, Scott has everything going for him. He’s the first defending champion in 13 years to break 70 in the first round – Vijay Singh did so in 2001. Since 1974 only four first-round leaders or co-leaders have gone on to win the Masters, but in 14 of the last 18 years the winner was inside the top 10 after Day 1.
Couple all those stats with Scott’s confidence, attitude and copious amounts of talent, and we could be on the verge of seeing only the fourth repeat champion in the history of this great tournament.
“There is a certain sense of freedom in the way you play, I think, and no doubt you can see that in the way Phil’s played around here since breaking through and hitting some shots that, if he had not had the success or the wins, he might not have hit being a little tighter,” Scott said.
“I’m swinging well, so I don’t mind taking on a couple shots… I’m kind of assessing everything and trying to play the percentages in my favor. That’s my kind of game.”
That game has a great chance to produce the same result it did 52 weeks ago here amongst the azaleas, dogwoods and Georgia pines.
Scott has fired the first warning shot.