AUGUSTA, Ga. — You let eight months pass between major championships, you can expect all sorts of questions to pile up before the world’s best tee off for real at Augusta National. Tiger’s redemption! Rory’s Grand Slam! Koepka’s waistline!
We had plenty before the season’s first major, and at the very least, Thursday provided partial answers.
Will Brooks Koepka’s recent dramatic weight loss screw with his green-jacket chances?
Yeah, probably not. Unless you think a beefier Koepka could have improved upon Thursday’s sizzling 66, which gave him a tie for the lead after the first round. Koepka’s mysterious body transformation, in which he admits he subscribed to a daily 1,800-calorie diet and lost power as a result, raised all sorts of questions about the golfer’s ability to capture a first green jacket. But for one day he was back to the player who has won two of the last three majors. Actually he was probably even better, considering his best round at Augusta National before Thursday was three shots higher.
Is Bryson DeChambeau too clever for his own good?
The Masters is more art than science, and to hear DeChambeau discuss everything from brain training to skipping a ball on the 16th hole at Augusta National, one might deduce that he can contend at the regular PGA Tour events all he wants, but perhaps he’s not yet ready for the big stage. Then came his opening 66 Thursday, which included six birdies on his final nine holes. It appears he’s onto something at Augusta as well. Although a winner of five tour titles, DeChambeau has only once finished inside the top 20 in a major. But his deft play so far here suggests he’s not going to disappear after one round.
Is this the year Rory McIlroy ends his Masters heartbreak?
Coming to Augusta fresh off seven straight top-10 finishes on the PGA Tour, including a win at the Players, McIlroy sputtered at the start of his round, playing two over through 12 holes, but seemed to turn things around with birdies on the 13th, 15th and 16th. Then bad bogeys on the 17th and 18th—his fifth and sixth of the day—left the 29-year-old from Northern Ireland with a one-over 73, seven strokes back of Koepka and DeChambeau. It’s not the spot the odds-on favorite entering this week wanted to be in. “I can accept mistakes if I’m trying and it’s not a mental error or I haven’t got into places, so I can accept some mistakes,” McIlroy said, “but six bogeys out there is a little too many, and I’m just going to need to tidy that up over the next few days.”
Who won the Jack-Gary opening tee-shot match?
Come on, that’s not what this is really about! It’s about the camaraderie, the tradition, the great joy of seeing two lions of the sport on the tee rekindling old memories. But if you must know, Player’s tee ball found the fairway with his tee ball at 8:15 a.m. Jack’s did not.
Can Tiger Woods drive it well enough to contend at Augusta National?
We’re going to say yes, even if Woods did miss three of his last four fairways. But for most of the day, the four-time Masters champ succeeded in keeping his ball in play and giving himself birdie looks—often by keeping up with playing partner Jon Rahm off the tee. “I thought today was, as hot as it was, the ball was flying a long way and I tried to take advantage of it,” he said. Even after missing a few short putts early and those fairways late, Woods managed an opening 70, the same opening score he mustered in three of his four Masters titles.
Will a return to Augusta National jolt a slumping Jordan Spieth back to life?
That was the hope for the former World No. 1 heading into the Masters, where some thought his record of four top-three finishes in five starts might serve as a healthy counter to his mediocre start to 2019. Turns out, that might have been just blind optimism, as the 2015 Masters champ missed a two-footer for par on the first hole, then chunked a couple of chips en route to a front-nine 40. A round of 75 leaves him nine shots off the lead, and in serious danger of missing his first cut in the Masters.
Can Jon Rahm keep his cool enough to win a major?
Many had an eye on the 24-year-old Spaniard after his fourth-place finish a year ago. On Thursday, he did little to disappoint, making five birdies en route to a three-under 69, his fourth straight sub-70 competitive round at Augusta National. It was the first time in his three Masters starts that Rahm broke par in the opening round, something he took great pleasure in afterward.
“I’ve heard Tiger say anytime you can take a round under par in the first round, take it,” he said. “This is a lot more than I could have hoped for.” Arguably more important than his score was the way he handled his temper on the back nine after hitting double-crosses off the 15th and 18th tee. Neither time did he let the frustration fester, something he’ll have to continue to do to stay in the mix.
Does Phil Mickelson muster more Augusta magic?
After he hit into the water at 11 and made back-to-back bogeys to move back to even par, and it looked like a Phil fade was in the works. Instead, the three-time Masters champ turned things around with birdies on 12, 13, 15, 16 and 18 to finish with a five-under 67. It was his best first-round score at Augusta National since 2010, and we remember what happened then. Since his victory at Pebble Beach in February, Mickelson hasn’t finished better than T-37, but few golfers see their game transform after a drive down Magnolia Lane like Lefty, who’ll play his 100th competitive round at Augusta on Friday. Don't forget: Phil would surpass Julius Boros as the oldest major champion with a win this week. That's some major history.
Which course change would have the most impact on play?
Most people figured the lengthened par-4 fifth would give players fits, and it did prove a sterner test, but the tweak that arguably caused more consternation for players was the rebuilt 18th green. Masters chairman Fred Ridley confirmed on Wednesday it was one of the two greens rebuilt since the last Masters, with areas on the back of the green “recaptured” with an eye toward a new hole location back right, which we might see later in the week. Players struggled, however, to figure out the break on the new surface with several golfers on the leader board—Justin Harding, Corey Conners, Lucas Bjerregaard, Patton Kizzire and Gary Woodland—making bogey on the closing hole. No. 18 played the third toughest on the day after ranking the 10th hardest in 2018.
How low would they go with the soft conditions from early week rain?
It wasn’t until the last few groups made their way through the back nine that we finally saw some low numbers posted on the leader board; no player starting earlier than 1:05 p.m (the 28th threesome of the day) shot a score better than 69. It was a fact that surprised the players themselves.
“The conditions weren’t that difficult,” said McIlroy. “I mean I felt the course was there. It’s soft. There's not much wind. … The greens are sort of slow. It's there for the taking.”
The explanation? A handful of players and caddies noted that the hole locations were perhaps more tucked than you'd normally see in the opening round—maybe a result of Masters officials trying to make sure the players didn’t have too easy a time given how soft the course was.