AUGUSTA, Ga. – Par, decorum and conventional wisdom seemed to be the only casualties on a Thursday dominated by flashback leaderboards, backhanded jabs and back-on-form headliners.
For everyone who has had their fill of sorted innuendo Fred Couples reminded us that Augusta National is where history is made for all the right reasons. For all that have tuned out the pre-tournament claptrap Tom Watson has proven, yet again, that pure ballstriking is timeless, be it on a windblown Scottish links or the Bobby Jones’ version of a windblown Scottish links.
Keeping time with the over-50 set was refreshed, and strangely accurate, Phil Mickelson, Lee Westwood, K.J. Choi and Y.E. Yang for those who track those sort of things.
The road to professional redemption for Woods is paved with quality golf, and on Thursday he gave the masses a reason to cheer instead of stare. But the day did have its uglier side.
Two small planes buzzed the grounds pulling less-than-endearing signs with comments pointed at Woods, but otherwise the world No. 1’s first-round 68, his first opening-round ever in the 60s in 16 trips down Magnolia Lane, left him two off the lead. It’s a reality that has drawn the ire of some. If Woods can go walk-about for five months and still make history, what does that say for the quality of competition on the Tour?
The more compelling question, of course, is how a pair of AARP members atop the field at the year’s first major looks.
In a collective defense of the circuit, however, few have been more prolific this year than Couples. After guiding the U.S. Presidents Cup team to glory last fall, Boom Boom has won three of his over-50 tour starts and finished runner-up, to Watson, no less, at the other.
“The Champions Tour has been a lot of fun but this is where I really want to play well,” said Couples, who narrowly missed an 8 footer for birdie at the last for a 66 and leads a large group by a stroke.
There are no shortage of rules at Augusta National: no running, no bare feet, no laying down. After Couples’ opening effort, the powers that be may want to work in a “no tennis shoe” addendum.
The sweet-swinging king of the Champions Tour leads Watson, Mickelson, Yang, Choi and Westwood after a windswept day that started, fittingly, with a ceremonial tee shot from another pair of living legends – Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.
Welcome to the Senior Masters, where the average age of the top six players was 43.6, and that’s with baby-faced Westwood, 36, dragging down the average.
Couples, who called his card “as good a round as I’ve ever played,” picked his way around familiar turf with no socks, no spikes, no golf cart, no problem save for a scrambling par from under an azalea at the 10th hole.
That he did so in relative serenity is a testament to the quality of those giving chase, and the intensity that descended on Woods who played to a pack house from sunny start to soggy finish.
“There’s 35,000 people on property and I reckon 32,000 of them will be with Tiger,” said Steve Bann, the swing coach for Woods’ playing companion Choi.
The other 3,000 must have been living under a tabloid-free rock the last five months, but if they did tear their way clear of the Tiger Show there was plenty to watch.
Mickelson looked nothing like the player who has been getting by this year on something short of a full tank, hitting almost as many fairways in his opening 18 (6) as he did for his closing 36 at the Shell Houston Open (7). Lefty has now posted book-end 67s, going all the way back to last year’s stirring final round.
While Westwood finally appears ready to give it his best try at Augusta National.
“He flew in early, played last Sunday and Monday before going to (the Shell Houston Open) and it’s the first time he’s ever done that,” said Chubby Chandler, Westwood’s manager. “He seems to have a familiarity and that has really made him feel comfortable.”
Yang, relaxed perhaps for the first time since his stunning victory over Woods at last year’s PGA, and Choi performed like they discovered a secret during all those practice rounds they played together this week.
And then there is Watson – making a cameo direct from his appearance in the Turnberry tragic comedy. There is something to be said for karma, which took a 2-up lead going into the Masters’ second loop.
That’s Watson, Tom not Bubba. That’s major, Augusta National not Turnberry. The same Watson that was asked less than two weeks ago by one innocently off-kilter reporter if he was playing the Masters.
The same Watson who, when asked during the same interview, for his Masters picks dismissed his own title chances outright saying, “No, not me. That golf course is too much for me.”
On Thursday he was reminded of his picks and his dismissive attitude regarding his own title chances, he smiled and pointed to the leaderboard, “My guy’s right there.” His guy? Couples.
Just no one remind him, or Couples, they play 72 holes at the Masters.