Augusta, Georgia – The Show was thick from the start, as it always is in the Augusta National Golf Club’s first jersey. And as is almost always the case when Tiger Woods lurks in a Masters tournament, there was almost no one there for the rest of his group, Victor Hovland or Xander Schauffele.
Perhaps they should have been—especially for Hovland, the only man out of the three not to win a major championship or finish as runner-up. By the end of the day, after all, he’ll be in a three-way tie for the lead.
“If you’re a little cocky and want to push some points that you probably shouldn’t you shouldn’t, they’ll punish you pretty quickly,” Hovland, who scored a 7-under par 65, said of the course. He is tied for the lead with Joe Ramm and LIV golfer Brooks Koepka. “So you know there’s a good score, but you can’t really force it. You just have to let it happen, and if you have some buildable hits, you have to make them, and then you can get into a rhythm.”
But he warned, “It’s one of those things, you’re pushing too hard, and it’s going to backfire.”
He clearly learned a lot in his first three appearances for the Masters. But before a waterlogged weather system threatened to turn Augusta National’s hills into the most slip-and-slide emerald hills out there, especially on Saturday, the trail was modestly less menacing than usual. The wind was calm, when they ever snatched the pines, and the intense humidity kept the course smooth.
With the circumstances, Hovland almost certainly wouldn’t end Thursday as a runaway solo leader, and he didn’t. Ram, who endured a frustrating March after winning three on the PGA Tour in January and February, parried a double-bogey on the first hole to also finish on 65. And Koepka, who won the weekend’s LIV Golf event, birdied the final two holes to earn share of the lead, lending the sophomore circuit a dose of credibility it may demand and crave in equal measure.
“It’s a complete focus on this and trying to get out of here in a green jacket,” said Koepka, a frontrunner on the LIV circuit funded by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund.
Koepka, a four-time major championship winner, drew attention Thursday night from the championship’s competition committee, whose chair said officials had “questioned” Koepka’s trolley and others “about a possible accident in No. 15.”
The chairman of the board, James B. “Therefore, the committee decided that there was no breach of the rules.”
Beyond Koepka, LIV, whose 54-hole tournament has sparked widespread debate about whether its players will be ready for the rigors of the 72-hole major tournament, has had a mixed day. British Open champion Cameron Smith opened a tee shot that stopped closer to the ninth fairway than the first. When sunset came, he had signed two under-70s. Phil Mickelson, the three-time Masters champion, was one on a par, as was Dustin Johnson, the 2020 winner.
But Bubba Watson, a two-time Masters winner who missed the Augusta National cut just once in his career, stunned or worse by six holes to score a 77. Louis Oosthuizen put together a 76, and Breson DeChambeau, who had six shots less than three years ago, made the state championship victory US Open, he finished on 74.
Yet for all the bittersweet theatrics that seeped into men’s golf with LIV’s storming onto the scene last year, much about LIV-era Opening Masters seemed like most other shows.
The fans—excuse me, sponsors—clutch plastic cups that sweat more visibly than some of the players. A sleeping woman at the base of a tree near the 11th fairway, and a little deeper at Amen Corner, Larry Meze, the 1987 Masters Finals champion, approached the 12th tee box to a gentle ovation. Woods, a 15-time major winner, was, as usual, an attraction, by design or accident.
“You’re in time: You can watch the Tiger tee off,” a gallery guard at Junction 7 told an elderly man in a 2007 PGA Championship hat. (Fittingly, Woods won that tournament.)
Woods has, yes, seen his flight to players over-average 74. But he has also glimpsed the handiwork of Hovland and Schauffele, who will finish at four on the day he feels he has control of his ball.
Hovland’s bump began toward the top of the leaderboard on the second hole, a 575-yard par-5 that played as the easiest hole at last year’s Masters. His tee thundered to the middle of the fairway, leaving him 209 yards short of the pin, at his estimation. He caught a six iron and expected his ball to crash around the leading edge of the green.
It went much further, landing close to Hovland, who at times struggled to overcome the intricacies of the short game, to hit the eagle. He later birdied five holes, including the newly extended 13th hole, and had no bogey.
“Here, there is absolutely no ordinary golf putt except maybe on three because everything is different lies,” said 2018 winner Patrick Reid.
“Because of that, you have to have complete control over what your club does, especially what you try to do with impact,” added Reid, the LIV player who shoots 71 Thursday. “I feel like Victor has always done it really well. If he kicks in and his putter starts working, he’ll go out and do what he’s doing on this golf course now.”
Ram called in a similar par magic on the eighth hole, the yellow jasmine par 570-yard hole.
Ram stood in the tee box and hit, in his estimation, “as hard as possible on the hard drive.” He thought he had about 267 yards left to the hole and pictured hitting a 4-iron par. He thought a correct bounce might put him around the back of the green.
Then hit him less than he wants.
“I loaded about 8,” he said, “and obviously had a perfect line and shot up to 3 feet.” “I hope I get that close, but being realistic, it doesn’t happen often. I’m glad I did. I mean, it was a really good swing, and for it to end up that close is a huge bonus.”
eagle. The leaders will benefit from two strokes over Cameron Young and Jason Day, who are tied for fourth, until Friday.
Augusta National may not be so relatively easy in the days ahead. The tournament’s official forecast warned that rain would threaten most Fridays, when thunderstorms could upset afternoon play. Saturday’s forecast was even more miserable, with up to two inches of rain expected and winds of up to 25 mph.
Koepka said his 8:18 a.m. ET slot in first place — 30 minutes earlier than initially planned — could be his biggest advantage on Friday.
“I think I might be able to take out a few more holes than anyone else before it starts sinking,” he said.
Many people will come after him.
Scotty Scheffler, the world’s highest-ranked golfer and last year’s Masters winner, missed a birdie putt in 18th and finished the day in 4th. Rory McIlroy shot 72, the first time since 2018 that he played the first round in Augusta to tie or better.
The cut will happen Friday night, weather permitting, with the streak being top 50, plus ties, leaving DeChambeau, Watson and Woods more vulnerable than most after their first-round performances.
“Most players are holding back today,” Woods said. “This was the day to do it.”
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