Dark clouds wrapped Augusta National in a wet shroud Thursday, but the steady rain and dank chill could not dampen the fireworks that lit up the first round of the 59th Masters tournament.
Out of the mist stepped a diverse assortment of contenders, a group that included newcomers, old hands and one legend.
With the fire taken out of the greens, the defending champion Jose Maria Olazabal, Phil Mickelson and David Frost shot 66’s for a one-stroke lead over - and this is not a mistake - Jack Nicklaus.
That’s right. It happens every spring.
If it’s the Masters, it must be Nicklaus, the six-time winner who is 55 years old but feeling, oh, maybe 10 years younger, shooting a round of 67 that included an eagle 2 on the par-four fifth hole and four birdies on the back nine. Coming off last weekend’s victory in The Tradition on the Senior PGA Tour, Nicklaus did not look his age; he looked as if he was trying to shoot his age.
“Let’s see, how old am I?” said the Golden Bear, chuckling. “Actually, I had a chance to shoot Arnold’s age.”
The reference was to his longtime rival, Arnold Palmer, who is 65, a number that would have given Nicklaus the lead. And don’t think for a minute that he doesn’t believe he is capable, sometime this week, or weekend, of somehow forging another miracle like the one that gave him his last Masters championship, in 1986.
But whether Nicklaus’s presence on the leaderboard is an illusion or not, it is part of the wonderful golf pastiche of the Masters. There are few courses in the world where such a disparate group of players, with such distinctly different games, could rise to the top. Among the threesome of leaders, only Mickelson, 24, is a long hitter. Frost, 35, is short off the tee (ranked 131st in driving distance last year), and Olazabal, 29, is an average driver.
What these players and their closest pursuers - Nicklaus, David Gilford (67) and Corey Pavin (67) - share is a deft touch on and around the greens. Olazabal is a certifiable short-game wizard. Thursday, he chipped in twice, for birdie at the 12th hole and for eagle at the 15th. Mickelson could have the best short game among American players. Frost ranked No. 3 in putting last year. Pavin has slain many larger opponents with his Bullseye putter. Gilford, an Englishman, is known as a short, straight hitter and a deadly putter.
And Nicklaus? Somehow, when he steps on the greens at Augusta National, surfaces that have worn his footprints for the last 36 years, he metamorphoses into the putter he once was. And to hear him tell it, Thursday was one of the best days in years.
“I putted perfect,” Nicklaus said. “I haven’t been that calm and collected with the putter in, I don’t know how long. Why? I don’t want to know why.”
Much of the focus going into the day was on how the amateur phenom, Tiger Woods, 19, would fare in his first competitive round. And he fared quite well. His even-par round of 72 tied him with the pre-tournament favorites Ernie Els and Peter Jacobsen and definitely impressed Olazabal, his playing partner.
“He drove the ball over the bunker at the second hole,” Olazabal said. “That’s 280 yards to carry. I couldn’t believe how far he was hitting the ball. I needed binoculars to see where it landed.”
Woods could have used a pair to see where his first official Masters putt stopped rolling. From a position 30 feet from the flag, he putted it by the hole, down the ridge and off the green. He exchanged the putter for a wedge, chipped it 12 feet from the hole and made a very big putt for bogey.
“All in all, it’s a good round, a good start to the tournament,” said Woods, who birdied four holes and bogeyed four holes. And it was a good start. Nicklaus shot 76 in his first Masters round. Ben Hogan shot 75. Arnold Palmer shot 76. Seve Ballesteros, who also was 19 in his first Masters, shot 74. Tom Watson shot 77. Robert T. (Bobby) Jones, founder of the tournament and widely regarded as the finest amateur ever, shot 76.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Masters leaderboard Leaders entering today’s second round of the Masters (par 72): David Frost 32-34-66 Phil Mickelson 32-34-66 Jose Maria Olazabal 35-31-66 Jack Nicklaus 35-32-67 David Gilford 34-33-67 Corey Pavin 33-34-67
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