It couldn’t have been more fitting.
We’ve waited 19 months for the Masters to be played. More than a year and a half for Tiger Woods to defend his title. So, what’s an extra three hours, right? It's still 2020, after all.
The 84th playing of the Masters began around 7 a.m. with Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player hitting their ceremonial tee shots and after 30 minutes of play, the tournament was put on hold. A three-hour weather delay forced players to do what they’ve done all season … wait.
Eventually the first round of this year’s final major would resume and even the wet weather couldn’t dampen the mood at Augusta National.
“This is the first round of the Masters. We didn’t think we were going to play this event so to have this opportunity and be able to play it … it was awesome out there,” Woods said after an opening round 68 placed him three strokes back of the lead.
That lead is held by journeyman Paul Casey, who at 43 years old continues his quest for a major title. Casey’s opening round 65 was good enough for a 2-shot lead ahead of Justin Thomas, Webb Simpson and Xander Schauffele at 7 under par.
Dark clouds would make way for an epic fall sunset at Augusta as play was eventually halted at 5:30 p.m. ET. Round one will resume at 7:30 a.m. ET which means Casey will sleep on the first-round lead.
Here’s a few key takeaways from round one.
A lack of patrons creates an odd feeling around August National
Augusta National in all of its fall splendor is certainly a sight to see, but the lack of patrons, grandstands or roars was flat out strange. Even coverage of Thursday’s first round was eerily quiet, lacking broadcasters until ESPN began coverage early in the afternoon.
To a man, the players remarked how different the course felt without the traditional fans on site, but many were simply thankful to just be playing the Masters.
“I chipped in on one and there were no claps. Normally, there would be a nice roar,” said Webb Simpson, who fired a 5-under-par 67 and sits just two strokes off the lead. “We were just talking out there. It's so nice, we're so thankful to be here. It’s not the normal Masters that we're used to, but it’s still way better than not having one.”
The lack of patrons created more space for the players who missed certain greens but also presented completely different sight lines and looks than they’re used to seeing at Augusta.
“There was a moment where I missed the fans. I was waiting to chip on seven green, and you have people on two hitting shots and on the third tee, and people on 17 hitting shots,” said Jon Rahm, who finished the day with a round of 3-under-par 69.
“I don't want to be distracted at any point. Having patrons at that moment, I wouldn't have been able to see any of that and I wouldn't have had to wait at all. When it comes to the atmosphere of the event, it's still the Masters. It's still the same course, the same beautiful place. You miss it, but I feel like the essence is still there.”
It was common sentiment among the players on Thursday. A Masters with a different feel, but one they're thrilled to be playing. Sounds like the last eight months in a nutshell.
Tiger Woods looks surprisingly sharp
Tiger Woods has won five Masters titles over his career but has traditionally been a slow starter at Augusta National. On Thursday, the defending champ picked up right where he left off 19 months ago. Woods came out of the gate with an opening round 68, matching the best day one score at Augusta of his career.
The 4-under-par afternoon was a surprise, considering his recent form. In six starts since the season restart, Woods’s best finish was a T-37 at the PGA Championship back in August. With his game a bit of an unknown heading into the week, Tiger simply relied on experience to kick start his title defense.
“I think that understanding how to play this golf course is so important.” said Woods, who tallied four birdies on the day in what he deemed a near perfect round of golf.
“I did everything well today. I didn’t do anything poorly,” Woods said, smiling.
Tiger, who began his round on the 10th hole, made an early charge with birdies on the 13th and 15th holes. He then followed with a near hole-in-one on the par-3 16th, leaving himself with a tap-in birdie. The bogey-free round was two strokes better than his 2019 opener and just the second opening round in the 60s that Tiger has posted during his career at the Masters.
“I got off to a fast start today, which is good, but I think everyone did.” said Woods, who credited the low overall scores to the damp soft conditions. “Everyone was going low out there today. You have to be aggressive. There's no reason why you can't fire at a lot of the flags.”
The pace has been set by guys like Casey, Thomas, Schauffele and Simpson. With ideal scoring conditions, the Masters could be set up for a shootout. Can Woods, at 44 years old, keep pace? After what we saw on Thursday, you’d be a fool to doubt him.
Bryson vs Augusta National
The buzz circling around the Masters early on this week surrounded Bryson DeChambeau and his plan to dismantle Augusta National with his length. The reigning U.S. Open champ hadn’t been shy about his plans to hit as many drivers and far as humanly possible and bring Augusta to its knees. Well, round one of the heavyweight bout between DeChambeau and Augusta National goes to the golf course.
Beginning his round on the 10th hole, DeChambeau ran in to major trouble on the par-5 13th hole. After pushing his drive into the pine trees, he rolled the dice trying to get home in two and fired his shot into a bush behind the 13th green. Luckily, DeChambeau found the ball, but an unplayable lie led to a double-bogey 7. You could almost hear the golf course whispering, ‘Take that, big boy.'
“Thirteen, I just didn't draw it around the corner enough, and I got greedy,” said a seemingly humbled DeChambeau. “This golf course, as much as I'm trying to attack it, it can bite back. It's still Augusta National, and it's the Masters. It's an amazing test of golf no matter what way you play it.”
To DeChambeau’s credit, he didn’t let the early-round hiccup derail his entire day. Birdies on three of his next seven holes got the round on track, and despite a bogey on number 7, the burly Bryson finished with consecutive birdies to finish with a 2-under par 70.
“I tried to take on some risk today. It didn't work out as well as I thought it would have, but at the end of the day I'm proud of myself, the way I handled myself and finished off.” said DeChambeau, who sits five shots back of the lead after day one. “Birdieing eight and nine was a testament to my focus level and wanting to contend here.”
By no means is this fight over. DeChambeau actually played a bit conservative in spots, even going as far as hitting 3-wood off the tee on 18. Expect Bryson to try and test the distance barrier even more Friday.
Two things to keep an eye on Friday
Can Paul Casey inch closer to his first major title?
On Thursday, the friendly Englishman conquered some big-time demons. His opening round of 65 was 16 shots better than how he started a year ago. Casey’s first round 81 in 2019 ended his Masters almost before it began, but a 7-under-par start on Thursday puts Casey in the driver’s seat.
Casey has played in 64 career majors and is one of the most accomplished players in golf without a major title. Ten career top-10 finishes in major championships shows he knows how to contend, but can the 44-year-old go the distance?
Will Justin Thomas stay hot after a quick turnaround?
No one was negatively affected by Thursday’s lack of daylight more than Justin Thomas. JT raced out of the gates in the afternoon wave with birdies on four of his first five holes. Thomas made the turn at 32 and added another birdie at 10 before officials blew the horn at Augusta National. Thomas will resume his first round early Friday morning and then begin round two shortly after. With 26 holes of golf ahead of him, Thomas could reach double digits under par if he carries his form over from Thursday to Friday.