Leishman grabs Masters lead, Woods in the mix
AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — So much for local knowledge at the Masters.
Marc Leishman had played two whole rounds at Augusta National. He was the leader on Day 1.
David Lynn had never played in the first major of the year. He was two shots back.
With all eyes on Tiger Woods, two unheralded players were ahead of him on the leaderboard Thursday.
Leishman shot a 6-under 66 and surged to the front with four straight birdies on the back side starting at No. 13. Not bad, considering the Australian had missed the cut in his only other Masters appearance in 2010.
“The first time I was here,” he recalled, “I was like a bit of a deer in headlights, I guess. I found myself looking around a little bit too much and not concentrating on getting the ball in the hole.”
He was hardly on a roll coming into Augusta, having missed the cut in his two previous PGA Tour events. But it all came together, for one day at least, amid the azaleas and towering Georgia pines.
“To be sitting here is pretty cool,” Leishman said. “But it’s only Thursday afternoon, so a lot of golf to play.”
No Australian has ever won the Masters.
Lynn, an Englishman, showed his runner-up finish in last year’s PGA Championship was no fluke. Under gray skies with a growing chance of rain, he birdied four of five holes around the turn and rolled in a testy 15-foot putt at the final hole to save par.
He hardly looked like a Masters rookie.
“It’s about playing the percentages,” Lynn said. “When I was on the ninth, I turned to my caddie and said, ‘We’re leading the Masters.’ He just looked at me and smiled. I told him, ‘I’d rather be leading it Sunday afternoon.’ But it’s not a bad thing to see your name up there leading the Masters. That’s always something I can look back on.”
Jamie Donaldson turned in the shot of the day, acing the 180-yard sixth for the 24th hole-in-one in Masters history. He is only the fifth player to make a 1 at the hole known as Juniper, with its towering tee box and a green at the bottom of the hill. Donaldson was the first to do it since Chris DiMarco in 2004.
Sergio Garcia was making an afternoon charge, pushing his score to 5 under with back-to-back birdies at the ninth and 10th holes.
The Spaniard, still seeking his first major title at age 33, has often struggled with Augusta’s tricky greens. He has only two top 10 finishes in 14 previous Masters.
Woods was the overwhelming favorite coming into the tournament, and that didn’t change after he opened with a 70.
“I felt like I putted well today,” said Woods, whose only lower opening-round score at Augusta was a 68 in 2010. “We’ve got a long way to go. I’ve just got to out there and play shot for shot. The golf course is going to change dramatically. You’ve just got to make adjustments.”
Woods has already won three times this year and reclaimed his No. 1 spot in the world rankings. But he hasn’t captured a major since 2008, and it’s been eight long years since he claimed his fourth green jacket at Augusta. He is still four majors shy of tying Jack Nicklaus’ record 18 championships — a mark that becomes a little more daunting each time the 37-year-old Woods fails to win one of golf’s biggest events.
Maybe this will be the week he breaks the longest major-less drought of his career.
“I feel comfortable with every aspect of my game,” Woods said beforehand. “I feel that I’ve improved and I’ve gotten more consistent, and I think the wins show that.”
Lynn is feeling good about the way things are going, too. In just the second major appearance of his largely overlooked career, he finished second behind Rory McIlroy at Kiawah Island.
He moved from the European to the American tour this year, a change that seems to have rejuvenated his passion for the game.
“It’s given me a second wind,” Lynn said. “Everything is new. I’m going to different places every week, different courses. It’s like I’ve started my career again almost.”
Guan Tianlang of China is just getting started. At age 14, he was the youngest player to ever qualify for the Masters.
Guan got off to a shaky start, making bogey on the first hole, but he showed remarkable poise. When the ball dropped into the cup for a birdie at the third, he pumped his right fist. Another birdie at the 13th — his third of the day — left him with a respectable 1-over score.
The kid was followed by his parents and several family friends, but inside the ropes Guan relied heavily on his playing partner, two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw, chatting frequently and soaking up every bit of advice that he could.
About three hours before Woods teed off, the tournament began with ceremonial shots from three of golf’s greatest players — 83-year-old Arnold Palmer, 77-year-old Gary Player and the 73-year-old Nicklaus.
Palmer was clearly pleased with his effort, which settled right in the middle of the fairway. He pumped his right fist as the crowd roared.
“The only nerves are to make sure you make contact,” Nicklaus quipped. “It doesn’t make a diddly-darn where it goes.”
Rickie Fowler matched Lynn’s 68, Jim Furyk and Zach Johnson opened with 69s, while Woods was joined at 70 by a large group that included Lee Westwood, Brandt Snedeker, Justin Rose, K.J. Choi and Jason Day.
If Woods is in contention heading to the weekend, he’ll likely have plenty of competition.
“Obviously, Tiger is Tiger,” said Scott Piercy, who played in Woods’ group along with Luke Donald. “He’s always going to be that target. He knows it, and that’s how he wants it. But there’s a lot of people getting closer. And the golfing gods, or whatever you want to call them, have a lot to do with winning. A bounce here, a bounce there. A lip in, a lip out.”
Three-time Masters champion Nick Faldo said about 20 players could win the Masters, all from what he referred to as the second tier but “pretty darn good.”
Donald, Rose and Ian Poulter. Snedeker and Bill Haas. Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel.
Not to mention three-time winner Phil Mickelson, defending champ Bubba Watson and former world No. 1 Rory McIlroy.
“Yes, Tiger is the favorite,” Faldo said. “He’s strong. He’s determined. We will see. But he’s going to be chased by a lot of really good players.”