Augusta bares its teeth but McIlroy and Lowry in hunt
Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry survived a daunting test of nerve and concentration at windy Augusta National on a tumultuous opening day at the 81st Masters.
The drama started with Dustin Johnson's shock withdrawal through injury, and ended with Charley Hoffman blistering the course to shoot 65, a sensational performance given the testing conditions.
Masters rookie William McGirt (37) had done well to set the clubhouse lead at 69, three-under par, but Hoffman blew away the field to take a four-shot lead into round two.
Lee Westwood used all his experience to get around in 70, with five straight birdies from 13.
The two Irish players both carded rounds of 72. They knew it could have been better, particularly Lowry who was two-under par with four holes to play.
The Clara native dropped shots on the 15th and 16th, but any score around par represented a good day's work.
McIlroy had his patience tested on the front nine, where he could not find a birdie, but rallied on his homeward run. The smile was back on the face and the bounce returned to his gait with a run of three birdies in his last six holes.
"I'm really pleased with that round because if someone had told me I'd shoot even par after being three over, I'd have ripped their hand off," he said.
"I made three really good pars around the turn and managed to get some momentum and I'm really pleased because I didn't play my best stuff but to get around in even par was a good day."
McIlroy's short game was particularly impressive and, as he missed some greens, he needed it to stay in the hunt.
"I hit a couple of suspect chips but got into it and it got better and better," he said.
"The chips on 11 and 12 where I had to bump it into the bank (before holing the putts) were really good shots an that gives me confidence going into the next few days."
McIlroy almost aced the famous 16th but had to be content with a birdie after a tee shot which looked all over the cup and brought him to his knees in a with a mixture of disappointment and delight back on the tee-box.
"It was a seven iron and really the perfect shot," McIlroy added. "For once I got the club right."
Veteran Phil Mickelson, bidding to emulate Jack Nicklaus by winning the Masters at age 46, finished in a large group on 71, one-under par, which included Olympic champion Justin Rose and fellow Englishmen Matt Fitzpatrick and Andy Sullivan.
Mickelson revelled in the conditions, saying: "Man, I love it. I thought anything at par or better was going to be a great score and it is.
"But because the greens are receptive, you can make birdies and you can stop balls on the greens, and make easy pars on a lot of holes.
"The problem is there's a lot of holes out here that you can have a big number and you just have to be careful of that."
Mickelson rolled in an eagle putt on the second hole which brought a huge roar from the patrons.
"Oh, that was cool. To make a putt on two for eagle and get the round started like that was exciting," he said.
"But I knew that there were still a lot of tough holes left out there, and just trying to make pars was the goal."
Rose had not featured highly in the pre-tournament list of fancied contenders but he's in the mix with an opening 71.
"If you beat the golf course today you can be pretty proud of yourself," he said. "It's certainly very tough out there. I've not played the course in a heavy wind like this before. There is no respite out there.
"Even simple tap-ins aren't simple. When the greens are this fast, the wind has a significant effect on them.
"On the third hole, for example, I had a five-foot putt, left to right across the slope, and the Augusta wind caught it mid-putt four foot down slope and it went ten feet by.
"Little things like that make it unnerving for you but for me I managed to get the putter going. Everything was a challenge today."
Jordan Spieth thought he had laid a hoodoo to rest by safely negotiating the Golden Bell 12th which proved the death knell to his 2016 Masters hopes, but the Texan got too frisky with the par-five 15th and racked up a horrible nine.
The only consolation is that if he had to have a disaster hole it came on day one at Augusta National.
Holder Danny Willett shot 73 on his return to the scene of his 2016 glory.
"When I was stood on the third tee, if someone had said I would shoot 73 I would have ripped their hand off and walked up the hill and gone inside and had a cup of tea," he said.
"It was a less than ideal start, not what I had envisaged the last 12 months starting out my defence, but I fought back really well, dug my heels in and hit some really good golf shots.
Willett's compatriot Fitzpatrick was three under par when he reached the 18th tee, but was distracted by spectators leaning over the ropes to get a better view and pulled his drive into the trees.
"I just didn't really feel comfortable over the tee shot," said Fitzpatrick, whose drive travelled just 166 yards.
"My low one's lower than everyone else's, so I can actually kill someone at head high. I should have backed off it and got everyone to move."
Jason Day was in a group of players on 74 which included 1987 champion Larry Mize.
Meanwhile, Johnson elaborated on the fall that caused him to withdraw from the Masters in which he was the red hot favourite.
"Tatum (his child) was on the way home from daycare," he said. "And it was pouring down rain, so I was going to go move the car, I was just wearing my socks.
"So I just slipped as I was going down the stairs. My left elbow is swollen and bruised. I landed on my left side."
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