Thursday, April 6, 2017

This Masters is blowing away expectations (literally)

All that happened Thursday at the Masters is this: Dustin Johnson withdrew because of a fall down a short flight of stairs; Jordan Spieth quadruple-bogeyed the 15th (not the 12th); Thomas Pieters carded six birdies, yet is tied for 14th at even par; and Arnold Palmer was not here for the first time since 1955.
What in the name of Charley Hoffman is going on here?
Charley Hoffman?
Yeah, exactly.
Hoffman sits atop the leaderboard after Day 1, 7-under par and four strokes clear of the field.
So yeah, not a whole lot of normal during Day 1 of the Masters, which started at 7:40 a.m. with Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player hitting the ceremonial first tee shot. They were surrounded by thousands of fans donning “I am a member of Arnie’s Army” buttons, a tribute to the departed Palmer, who had participated in the ceremony since 2007.
As the 77-year-old Nicklaus prepared to hit his tee shot, standing near an empty chair on which rested Palmer’s green jacket, he raised his hat to the sky, then promptly spanked his drive down the middle of the fairway.
Jack Nicklaus salutes to the sky in honor of Arnold Palmer. (AP)
The shot ushered in a new era without Palmer, one that may not be as momentous but surely got off to a strange start, beginning with the withdrawal of Johnson. A set of three stairs felled the world’s No. 1 player Wednesday afternoon, a sock-induced slippage that wrenched his back so badly that, in his effort to play Thursday, saw him yield to his brother/caddie to tee up his ball on the practice range.
As he walked off the practice range, just minutes before his 2:03 tee time, he indicated that he was going to give it a go. But by the time his threesome made it to the first tee box, there were only two players present.
Johnson, the overwhelming favorite who came into this tournament having won three starts in a row, was out, his assault on the majors delayed until the U.S. Open in June.
“It sucks,” he said. “I’m playing the best golf of my career. … To have a freak accident happen yesterday afternoon after I got back from the course, it sucks.”
So naturally all attention turned to Spieth, he of the monumental meltdown last year at No. 12 where he gave away the green jacket to Danny Willett. Spieth survived 12 – par – only to miss-club at 15 – bouncing one in the drink, then flew the green and finished it off with a three-putt for a 9. He’s 3-over, not out of it, but not in it right now.
Dustin Johnson walks off the course at Augusta National after withdrawing from the Masters. (AP)
A big part of Spieth’s 9 was wind, which was very much a factor Thursday. Gusts of up to 40 mph are how Pieters went from 5-under through 10 to even par by 18. Birdies were there to be had (see Hoffman), but double bogey was always in play.
Only 11 players broke par, a list that includes the big names of Lee Westwood (-2), Phil Mickelson (-1) and Sergio Garcia (-1), but also unknowns such as William McGirt (-3), Russell Henley (-1) and Kevin Chappell (-1).
It proved to be a brutally tricky day – the top five ranked players in the field (excluding Johnson) are a combined 14-over par – for just about everyone save Hoffman, who birdied four of his final five holes despite every flag on every stick standing at stiff attention. That stretch came to a begrudging end when his birdie putt on 18 stopped inches short.
Still, he holds a 4-stroke lead on a day when separation seemed impossible.
“Even par,” Hoffman said of his goal going into the round. “It was one of those rounds where you can shoot yourself out of the tournament pretty quickly.”
Shoot yourself out of the tournament. Stumble yourself out of the tournament. More wind is expected Friday, which means, well, more unpredictability. The only thing we know for certain is Dustin Johnson won’t be a part of it.

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