AUGUSTA, Ga. — The gallery was thick from the start, as it almost always is at Augusta National Golf Club’s first tee. And, as it almost always is when Tiger Woods is lurking at a Masters Tournament, nearly no one was there for the rest of his group, Viktor Hovland or Xander Schauffele.
They probably should have been — especially for Hovland, the only man of the three never to have won a major tournament or finish as a runner-up. By day’s end, after all, he would be in a three-way tie for the lead.
“If you get a little too cocky and you want to push a few spots that you probably shouldn’t, it will punish you very quickly,” Hovland, who scored a seven-under-par 65, said of the course. He is tied for the lead with Jon Rahm and the LIV Golf player Brooks Koepka. “So you know a good score is out there, but you can’t really force it. You’ve just got to let it happen, and if you have some makable putts, you’ve got to make them, and then you can get into a rhythm.”
But, he warned, “It’s one of those things, you push too hard, and it will backfire.”
He plainly learned plenty in his first three Masters appearances. But before a waterlogged weather system threatened to turn Augusta National’s hills into the most emerald of slip-and-slides, especially on Saturday, the course was modestly less menacing than usual. Winds were calm, when they rustled the pines at all, and punishing humidity kept the course soft.
With those conditions, Hovland was almost certainly not going to end Thursday as a runaway solo leader, and he did not. Rahm, who endured a frustrating March after winning three PGA Tour events in January and February, overcame a double bogey on the first hole to also finish at 65. And Koepka, who won a LIV Golf event over the weekend, birdied the last two holes to earn a share of the lead, lending the second-year circuit a dose of the credibility that it might require and crave in equal measure.
“It’s full focus on this and trying to walk out of here with a green jacket,” said Koepka, one of the headliners of the LIV circuit funded by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund to considerable condemnation and skepticism.
Koepka, a four-time major tournament winner, drew attention Thursday evening from the tournament’s Competition Committee, whose chairman said that officials had “questioned” Koepka’s caddie and others “about a possible incident on No. 15.”
“All involved were adamant that no advice was given or requested,” the chairman, James B. Hyler Jr., said in a statement. “Consequently, the committee determined that there was no breach of the rules.”
Beyond Koepka, LIV, whose 54-hole competitions provoked wide debate over whether its players would be ready for the rigors of 72-hole major tournaments, had a mixed day. Cameron Smith, the reigning British Open champion, opened with a tee shot that stopped closer to the ninth fairway than the first. When sundown came, though, he had signed for a two-under-par 70. Phil Mickelson, a three-time Masters champion, was one under par, as was Dustin Johnson, the 2020 winner.
But Bubba Watson, a two-time Masters winner who has missed Augusta National’s cut only once in his career, bogeyed or worse on six holes to score a 77. Louis Oosthuizen put together a 76, and Bryson DeChambeau, who had a six-shot U.S. Open victory less than three years ago, finished at 74.
Still, for all of the embittered theatrics that have seeped into men’s golf as LIV stormed onto the scene last year, much about the inaugural Masters of the LIV era seemed like most any other one.
Fans — pardon us, patrons — clutched plastic cups that sweated more conspicuously than some of the players. A woman dozed at the base of a tree close to the 11th fairway, and just a bit deeper into Amen Corner, Larry Mize, the 1987 champion playing his final Masters, approached the 12th tee box to gentle applause. Woods, the 15-time major winner was, as usual, an attraction, by design or happenstance.
“You’re just in time: You can see Tiger tee off,” a gallery guard at the No. 7 crossway told an elderly man sporting a hat from the 2007 P.G.A. Championship. (Fittingly, Woods won that tournament.)
He saw Woods, yes, his journey to a two-over-par 74. But he also glimpsed the handiwork of Hovland and Schauffele, who would end at four under on a day when he felt he had exacting command of his ball.
Hovland’s lurch toward the top of the leaderboard began on the second hole, the 575-yard par-5 that played as the easiest hole at last year’s Masters. His tee shot thundered to the middle of the fairway, leaving him about 209 yards from the pin, by his estimate. He gripped his 6-iron and expected his ball to crash around the green’s front edge.
It went much farther, landing close enough for Hovland, who has sometimes struggled to conquer the intricacies of the short game, to putt for eagle. He later birdied five holes, including the newly lengthened 13th, and had no bogeys.
“Around here, there’s never just a normal golf shot except maybe on the par-3s because everything is all different lies,” said Patrick Reed, the 2018 winner.
“Because of that, you have to have full control over what your club’s doing, especially what you’re trying to do through impact,” added Reed, a LIV player who shot a 71 on Thursday. “I feel like Viktor has always done that really well. If he gets going and his putter starts working, he’s going to go out and do what he’s doing on this golf course right now.”
Rahm summoned similarly consequential magic on the eighth hole, the one christened Yellow Jasmine that demands 570 yards.
Rahm stood in the tee box and hit, in his estimate, “about as hard a drive as I can.” He figured he had about 267 yards left to the hole and pictured hitting a draw 4-iron. The right bounce, he thought, might position him around the back of the green.
Then he hit it lower than he wanted.
“It carried about 8 on and obviously on a perfect line and released all the way to 3 feet,” he said. “I would hope I would get that close, but being realistic, it doesn’t usually happen that often. I’m happy it did. I mean, it was a really good swing, and for that to end up that close is a huge bonus.”
Eagle. The leaders will take a two-stroke advantage over Cameron Young and Jason Day, who were tied for fourth, into Friday.
Augusta National may not be so relatively easy in the days ahead. The tournament’s official forecast warned that rain would threaten for much of Friday, when thunderstorms could upend afternoon play. Saturday’s outlook was even more miserable, with up to two inches of rain and wind gusts of 25 miles per hour expected.
Koepka said his 8:18 a.m. Eastern time appointment at No. 1 — 30 minutes earlier than initially planned — could be his greatest advantage on Friday.
“I think I might be able to squeak out a few more holes than everybody else before it starts dumping,” he said.
Plenty of people will be chasing.
Scottie Scheffler, the world’s top-ranked golfer and last year’s Masters winner, missed a birdie putt at No. 18 and ended his day at four under. Rory McIlroy shot a 72, the first time since 2018 he had played a first round at Augusta to par or better.
The cut will happen Friday evening, weather permitting, with the line being the top-50, plus ties, leaving DeChambeau, Watson and Woods more vulnerable than most after their showings in the first round.
“Most of the guys are going low today,” Woods said. “This was the day to do it.”
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