AUGUSTA, Ga. – The flair of Rory McIlroy. The sheer power of Alvaro Quiros. These are but two of the fresh faces in golf who offered more evidence Thursday at the Masters that a new generation is on the way.
And that’s only going to make it tougher on Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods.
The 21-year-old McIlroy, who opened with a 63 at St. Andrews last summer in the British Open, again delivered exquisite shots on one of golf’s biggest stages for a 7-under 65. It was such a clean round that he didn’t make a bogey and was left wondering how much lower he could have gone if not for missing five birdie chances inside 10 feet.
“It wasn’t maybe as exclusive or spectacular as the 63 at St. Andrews,” he said. “But it was very solid from start to finish.”
Then came Quiros, a 28-year-old Spaniard whom many consider the longest hitter in the game. Blasting away on a course where he had never shot better than 75, he spun an approach back to 3 feet on the 18th hole to catch McIlroy atop the leaderboard.
They had a two-shot lead over a pair of South Koreans, former PGA champion Y.E. Yang and K.J. Choi.
Mickelson and Woods, with six green jackets between them in the last decade, blended in more than they stood out.
Woods played in the morning in only a moderate breeze, ideal conditions for scoring. But he lost his way starting the back nine with consecutive bogeys, made only one birdie on the par 5s and had to settle for a 71.
“I would rather be where Rory’s at,” Woods said. “But, hey, it’s a long way to go. We have a long grind ahead of us. The temperature is supposed to warm up and I’m sure they will start making the pins a little more difficult as the week goes on. I’m right there in the ballgame. I’m only six back, and as I said, we’ve got a lot of golf ahead of us.”
Mickelson was far more erratic off the tee, hitting tee shots into the Georgia pines and spraying one so far into the azaleas left of the 13th fairway that he looked like he was on an Easter egg hunt as he searched for his ball. He hit only four fairways, last in the field of 99 players.
As always, his superb chipping kept him from dropping shots on three straight holes around the turn. His only mistake came on the 18th, when he hit his approach into the gallery left of the green and chipped too hard, missing a 7-foot par putt for a 70.
“I scrambled well today, but I let four or five birdie opportunities slide,” Mickelson said. “I’m going to have to capitalize on those opportunities to go low. I didn’t shoot myself out of it, but I didn’t make up ground on the field like I wanted to.”
The top Americans on the leaderboard were Matt Kuchar and Ricky Barnes at 68. Another shot back was a group that included former U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy, Brandt Snedeker and Sergio Garcia, who is slowly showing signs of a revival.
The good news for McIlroy was not only a great start to the Masters, but a great forecast.
Last summer in Scotland, the freckle-faced kid from Northern Ireland followed his record-tying 63 with an 80 when he got caught up in the blustery conditions of St. Andrews. He eventually rallied for a tie for third at the Open, and hopes he gained some experience.
“Obviously at the time, I was very disappointed to come off the course and shoot 80 after shooting 63,” McIlroy said. “But looking back on it, it was a very valuable lesson in my development as a golfer. It’s possible that I can go out and shoot another 65, but I know that it’s also very likely that I’m not going to do that.
“So if I do find myself in a bit of trouble, I’m going to have to stick in there, grind it out.”
This was not a day to grind, not with weather that only enhanced the garden beauty of Augusta, and not with hole locations along the front nine that allowed for such good scoring.
Retief Goosen started out by holing an 8-iron from 161 yards on the opening hole, the first player in 24 years to make eagle on the first hole of the Masters. He reached 5 under at the turn, only to get tripped on the back nine for a 70.
McIlroy fired off three straight birdies starting the par-5 second, the best of those a pitch from just outside 60 yards that skipped and stopped a few feet from the hole at No. 3. He hit 7-iron just left of the pin on No. 9, then picked up another birdie on the 11th with a 5-iron that flirted with the pond left of the green and settled 8 feet away.
Two more birdies followed, and McIlroy had another stellar round in the majors. Despite being only 21 – he is the youngest player atop the leaderboard after one round at the Masters – he already has six rounds at 68 or better in the majors on some of the tougher courses, from Carnoustie to Bethpage Black to Whistling Straits.
“Sounds simple,” he said. “But it wasn’t.”
Quiros was in the final group of the day, and it was as explosive as there is in the game. He was joined by Gary Woodland and Jhonattan Vegas, two Augusta newcomers who qualified in recent months with their first PGA Tour win – more examples of a shift toward youth, two players built more for football and basketball than for golf.
They all bash it, and did they ever put on a show.
They combined to make 10 birdies and two eagles over the last six holes, enough reason for the gallery to stick around even as Woods was long gone and Mickelson was on the practice range in the fading sunlight.
Woodland, who played Division II basketball for one year, played his final six holes in 6-under par for a 69. Vegas, such an exciting young player that his colleagues call him “Johnny Vegas,” three-putted for bogey from 12 feet on the 18th for a 72.
Augusta still showed some teeth if players got too careless.
PGA champion Martin Kaymer, the No. 1 player in the world, struggled again at the Masters and shot a 78. He has never made the cut, and it looks as though this might be another short week. Lee Westwood, runner-up to Mickelson last year, opened with a 72.
“It’s not my game at the moment,” Westwood said. “If you can’t hole it out from 4 feet, you’re going to struggle.”
No one struggled more than Henrik Stenson, who shot an 83.
Quiros used to know that feeling. He made his Masters debut with rounds of 78-75 two years ago, and the lanky Spaniard couldn’t do better than 75 in two rounds last year. So when he came to the course, he only checked the scores of his countrymen.
As for that 65 that McIlroy posted?
“You have to see, this is my third appearance, and my best score was 75,” Quiros said. “I cannot be pretending to see the leaderboard. It would be stupid.”
But he made up ground quickly with his length, making birdie on all the par 5s and staying out of trouble. He doesn’t have the secrets unlocked at the Masters, and despite being tied for the lead, he still is thinking only of making the cut.
“The two previous years, I came to the Masters thinking that I can play well, shoot low. And this one was my main mistake,” he said. “Because it’s a golf course … it’s too tough. And today, I was very happy making pars. This is why probably I shoot 65.”
Then again, maybe it’s wise not to think too far ahead.
In the last 25 years, Trevor Immelman is the only Masters champion who was atop the leaderboard after the opening day.