Justin Rose recaptures best form as Rory McIlroy toils at The Masters
On a day when Augusta stirred with calamity and so many of its favourites crumbled under the strain, Justin Rose marched serenely through the danger to take a commanding four-shot lead in the first round of The Masters. Back in its traditional springtime slot, with the tournament’s organisers desperate not to see a repeat of Dustin Johnson’s record-breaking score last November, the greens skated like ice rinks and left so many of the pre-tournament favourites on unsteady legs. But with only two players in the clubhouse below 70, Rose was utterly irrepressible, carding seven birdies and an eagle late in the afternoon to take the second-largest lead on day one of the major in history.
The former world No 1 has spent the past two years searching for his best form, dropping 40 places in the rankings, and few touted him as a genuine contender this week, despite coming so agonisingly close in 2017 when he lost to Sergio Garcia in a playoff. After spending five weeks away from the PGA Tour due to a back problem, in truth, he started in that same vein, sitting at two-over-par through seven, before a somewhat fortunate bounce at the par-5 eighth led to an eagle, kickstarting a faultless exhibition of ball-striking from thereon in. “I’ve had some situations in my career that should stand me in good stead,” Rose said afterwards. “But listen, I think to keep the expectations relatively low even in this situation is not a bad thing for me for the remainder of the week. Just keep it one shot at a time, keep committing on this golf course. You can never get ahead of yourself, we’ve seen it many times around here.”
Amongst the late starters, Rose’s round completely rewrote the narrative of what had otherwise been a chastening first round. Rory McIlroy and the man he’s attempted to emulate, Bryson DeChambeau, were both high-profile victims, the former providing further evidence that his swing requires major surgery rather than subtle tweaks. His downfall, finishing with a 76, came with a rather comic moment on the seventh hole when his approach swerved venomously through the air some 50 yards left of the green and instead struck the calf of his unwitting father, Gerry. “I knew it was my dad when I was aiming at him. Probably 30 seconds before I hit it,” McIlroy joked afterwards, applying some light humour to what had otherwise been another gloomy opening round.
DeChambeau’s prophesies of bludgeoning the course into submission were quickly laid to waste once again as his drives cannoned into the trees. When he finally found the fairway, his approach shots were bereft of finesse. He may be the US Open champion, but Augusta is not a course to be put in a chokehold by someone who so often seems unable to control their own ball at all.
And yet, if it wasn’t for Rose’s brilliance, few players at all could have been comfortably ruled out of contention. Jack Nicklaus labelled Augusta the “quintessence of a second-shot golf course” and so, perhaps, it was no surprise that Brian Harmon, who ranks a lowly 143rd in driving distance on the PGA Tour, spent much of the day as clubhouse leader at three-under-par alongside Hideki Matsuyama. Nor was it a coincidence to see Patrick Reed, the 2018 champion, just one further behind. “I just love a challenge,” the American said. “I love having your back up against the wall and you having to go and produce, try to do something. I love just the satisfaction of pulling off crazy golf shots or the tough up and downs and things like that.”
If it weren’t already easy to understand quite how brilliant Rose played, spare a thought for Bernd Wiesberger, whose eagle putt on the 15th hurtled some 85ft down the slope and dove into the water. Mike Weir, the 2003 champion, went one step further and hurled his ball in anger into the creek. Augusta was not hesitant in showing its teeth.
For the defending champion, Dustin Johnson, much of the day was spent wrestling for precision. The dominant world No 1’s form has finally teetered in recent weeks and he did brilliantly to haul himself back into the red before a cruel double-bogey at the last quickly undid that progress. “Two over is not a terrible score today,” he said before Rose’s heroics altered the picture. “I feel like I am still right in it, just need to shoot a good score tomorrow. I would have liked to have finished a little better but the course was playing tough.”
Jordan Spieth arrived as the form player, having ended his four-year drought at the Valero Open last week, and was progressing well until a thunderous slice ventured so deep into the woods it might have developed nocturnal vision at the ninth. Rather than taking his medicine, he attempted a miraculous punch and left battered and bruised with a triple bogey. He responded valiantly, though, and an eagle at the 15th moved the three-time major winner back under par.
His rollercoaster best summed up the tumult on Thursday until Rose’s aggressive metronome. If this was a day purely to stay in contention, then others may already be thinking about gambling to catch up. The Englishman may be far out in pole position but, provided the threatening storms don’t soften the course, there will still be so many laps to run. For whoever rolls the dice, this time at Augusta, there will be no easy hands.
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