Father Time was perhaps riled by the domination of pre-Masters discussion of what athleticism and equipment – or, to be precise, Bryson DeChambeau – may do to Augusta National. Sixteen years have passed since Paul Casey tied sixth on his Masters debut. Tiger Woods first competed at Augusta National two and a half decades ago. As DeChambeau battled swing demons – not entirely unsuccessfully, it must be said – Casey strode to the top of the leaderboard, with Woods in close pursuit.
Casey’s 65 included five birdies and an eagle. It represented a 16-stroke improvement from his first Masters round of 2019. In truth, the latter performance is an anomaly in context of his strong Augusta record. A more pertinent reference point appears the Englishman’s second place in this summer’s US PGA Championship; but Georgia was always on his mind.
“This is something I’ve looked forward to,” Casey explained. “I was vocal earlier in the year about not enjoying golf in a pandemic. I’m acutely aware that I’m in a very fortunate position. I still get to be a professional golfer and play championship golf, but I didn’t know how the fan-less experience would be. So far, I’ve not enjoyed it and I felt the lack of energy. I’ve had nothing or very little to draw from, being out playing tournament golf.
“The Masters, though … this week, it still has a buzz to it. There’s an energy and a little bit of a vibe. Yes, it’s clearly a lot less than what we are used to but there’s something about this place. I felt excited to be here. I’ve never been so happy to pass a Covid test, just to get in.
“With the history of this championship, this tournament. So many people like myself are just excited to play this. This is a treat. It always has been and always will be a real treat.”
At 43, Casey is seeking the maiden major win that would haul his career into fresh territory. At 44, Woods is now in hot pursuit of a sixth Green Jacket. The defending champion’s chances heading into this event were seen as remote; how Woods silenced the naysayers with a wonderfully composed 68. Incredibly, this marked just his second sub-70 opening Masters round.
By Woods’s own calm assessment: “I did everything well.” There was, though, time to reflect on the value of Augusta experience. “I think that understanding how to play this golf course is so important,” he added. “I’ve been lucky enough to have so many practice rounds throughout my career with so many past champions, and I was able to win this event early in my career and build myself up for the understanding that I’m going to come here each and every year.
“So understanding of how to play it is a big factor and it’s one of the reasons why early in my career that I saw Jack [Nicklaus] contending a lot, I saw Raymond [Floyd] contending late in his career, now Bernhard Langer and Freddie Couples always contend here late in their careers. Just understanding how to play this golf course is a big part of it.”
DeChambeau’s first four holes included two provisional balls, pine straw, Rae’s Creek, a bush, a penalty drop and a fluffed chip. He was two over par taking to the 14th, his fifth, tee. The ghosts of MacKenzie and Jones looked to be in play. To his credit – and in emphasising his level of talent – the Californian rallied to the point where he signed for a 70. “I am fortunate to be two under par,” he admitted. He spent most of the day fighting a hook which will need to be eliminated if he is to contend for the Green Jacket.
Casey’s lead is two, from Xander Schauffele and Webb Simpson. Justin Thomas, who has played only 10 holes, is also five under. Lee Westwood, Hideki Matsuyama, Louis Oosthuizen and Patrick Reed matched Woods’s 68.
A three-hour delay, caused by a forecast thunderstorm that duly hit Augusta in the morning, meant a host of players must return to complete their first rounds on Friday. Rory McIlroy is level at the turn with Dustin Johnson, one of the Northern Irishman’s playing partners, on three under. Thomas birdied his first three holes in serving notice that he was rightly among the Masters favourites; he collected a shot at the hazardous 10th immediately before the horn blew.
Nicklaus and Gary Player had undertaken ceremonial starting duties shortly before the delay. Nicklaus created something of a storm before the US presidential election when offering strong support for Donald Trump. Naturally, the 18-times major winner was asked if he now had any follow-up comments. Naturally his reply was curt. “I think I’ve said enough about that. I don’t think this is the place for politics.”
Nicklaus did, though, share an endearing tale relating to his time in the Crow’s Nest, Augusta’s standard lodgings for amateur players, during the 1959 Masters. “We had Phil Rodgers, Deane Beman, Ward Wettlaufer, Tommy Aaron and myself,” Nicklaus recalled. “We all stayed there. That’s not a very big place, if you happen to go look at it, for five guys. One bathroom, one shower. But we all stayed there, and of course Phil and I were the big eaters at the time.
“The amateurs had to be charged for their food, so they charged us a dollar for breakfast, a dollar for lunch and two dollars for dinner. Phil and I, generally speaking, would have two steaks at night. They came to us after a couple nights and they said: ‘Gentlemen, you’re abusing the thing with eating two steaks, we’re going to have to charge you $2 apiece.’ I said: ‘That’ll be quite all right.’” Simpler times.