It happened. After much consternation on Wednesday, when torrential rains poured through the entire state of Georgia, the first round of the 2017 Masters Tournament is in the books. Charlie Hoffman closed round one with a 7-under-par 65 to lead William McGirt (-3) by four shots and Lee Westwood (-2) by five shots. Yes, they got it in, but not everything went off without a hitch.
Wednesday’s rains came and went, but blustery conditions remained through Thursday, pushing average scoring at the 81st Masters into the mid 70s. Even with slower, more receptive greens from the heavy rain, the best players in the world struggled to string together birdies, and bogeys lurked on every hole. Hoffman’s round was one of two in the 60s. A slew of players sit at 1-under par, including Phil Mickelson, Justin Rose, Sergio Garcia and Jason Dufner, who appeared over the moon at having shot himself into contention.
Considering the conditions, Hoffman’s round was borderline miraculous, as he carded nine birdies on the day. After battling to 2-under on the front nine, Hoffman cruised through Amen Corner and made five birdies in a seven-hole stretch on the back nine. He burned the edge of the cup on a birdie putt on the 18th green for a chance at 8-under, but settled for sleeping on a four-shot lead.
The flailing winds calmed unexpectedly for about an hour in the afternoon, and the soft greens began giving up birdies that could have been sold a few hours earlier. Lee Westwood birdied five of the last six holes to answer Hoffman and erase a front nine full of bogeys. Only Hoffman and Westwood really took advantage of the window of calm, though. Without Hoffman’s theatrics, Westwood would have been atop a crowded leaderboard.
Before the start of play Thursday morning, the first tee was the site of one of the most touching moments the Masters has ever seen. Augusta Chairman Billy Payne placed a green jacket on an empty white chair near the first tee box in memory of Arnold Palmer before Gary Player struck the first honorary shot of the 2017 Masters. Next, Jack Nicklaus teed up and, with a tear in his eye and a point to the heavens, striped one down the pipe. The word is it snuck past Player’s drive, though just barely.
Thanks to Wednesday’s deluge, the Masters Par 3 contest was cancelled due to weather for the first time in the history of the tournament. Whether omen or happenstance, the cancellation may be a boon for one player in the field. Since the tradition began in 1960, no Par-3 contest winner has ever gone on to win the Masters in the same year. No one can change that fact this year, but no one will cope with the jinx, either.
Don’t talk to Dustin Johnson about omens or jinxes, though. The biggest news in the hours preceding tee-off was the unfortunate spill Johnson took down a small flight of stairs at his rental home in Augusta, injuring his back in the tumble. Johnson came out to the course to warm up, but elected to withdraw from the Masters, citing back pain.
The loss of Johnson waters down the field a bit, as he came in playing a better brand of golf than anyone else. The world number one leads the PGA Tour in so many categories – driving distance, GIR percentage, strokes gained tee-to-green, etc. – that he seemed destined to at least contend this year. It was not to be, though.
Perhaps the 2017 Masters will go down in history with an asterisk as the one that the most dominant player in the world could not play. That is not likely, though. Staying number one is historically harder than getting there, and a large part of that equation is a player’s health. Had Johnson not been wearing socks on wood floors, he may very well have won his first green jacket this year. Instead, he is watching the Masters on TV like Tiger Woods, wondering what might have been.
In Johnson’s absence, the field coagulated around even par. Were it he, instead of Hoffman, four shots ahead on Friday, the players giving chase might have felt out of it. Now, anyone within 10 shots likely feels that they are just one good round away from contention. Not that Hoffman is incapable of slamming the door – far from it. He has four wins on Tour, and he qualified for the Masters. Everyone in the field is a threat. In the history of the Masters, though, only five players have gone wire-to-wire to win, and two of those players were named Palmer and Nicklaus.