Augusta National demands and rewards patience above all. Having talked up Tiger Woods so much, even to the point of irritating some readers, I followed his group and the succeeding group diligently. I was severely chided by an Australian friend who felt that not enough respect was given to Marc Leishman and that I would shortly eat my words; Peter Thomson, the famous golfer, also from Australia, wrote in to say that the one to look at was Jordan Spieth and not Tiger Woods. How right they were as Leishman steadily climbed up the leader board while Tiger looked so lacklustre that his game completely belied the many weeks of expectation of adoring fans. He played as though he might easily miss the cut and benefit all the bookies. He sprayed his tee shots all over and on par 5s could muster only pars when eagles and birdies were required; without being significantly under par on these accessible par 5s, there can be no chance of winning (Jordan Pieter was 5 under today).
Augusta National demands patience above all and leavens the resultant rewards with carefully calibrated risks. Most of the players are good enough to win this tournament but those who push the course too hard, or take things for granted, are likely to take the weekend off. As it is with only 87 participants and the weekend field expected to be just about half that number, Woods certainly threatens to be in that territory. He redeemed himself somewhat in the closing holes but has to score low on the Friday to make the cut which is likely to be at par or better; to win, he will have to score rounds of at least 66 on each of the succeeding days.
Risk-reward on this course is dangerously disguised. Sergio Garcia experienced this on the par five 15th hole when his easy but not good third shot landed on the edge of the green and spun back into the water. He could still have made par by taking a drop and then making a relatively easy up and down; however, he created history by hitting a total of four perfect shots to just above the pin to find each of them spinning back into the water. The patrons were horrified that the fates should treat the defending champion this way; but the fates are not without irony. He unwittingly (obviously) scored 13 on this easy par 5, the highest ever on the 15th, and also joined the ranks of those few who had scored 13 on any hole at Augusta National, thus creating history!
Earlier, Leishman, firing on all cylinders in all aspects of his game, went a little over the same easy 15th hole green with his second (hoping to position himself for an eagle), but then chipped a little aggressively and found the water below the hole to score a double. He’s playing very well indeed and if he is in the mix on Day 4, one hopes his hands don’t jam.
The later pairings of the day appear to score better with Jordan Spieth leading the field by two shots. Having been visited by severe misfortune a couple of years ago when he twice fell into Rae’s Creek (one of the four praetorian guards of the 12th hole pivot of Amen Corner, the others being strategically placed bunkers, the inviting Azalea beds just beyond and of course a narrow, lateral running green) he knows that there are 54 more holes to play and anything can happen. Ian Poulter would agree as, having scored an unsatisfactory one over in the first round of the Houston Open a week ago, he ended up winning the tournament. Spieth knows not to get ahead of himself on this course as, although he is looking tough to beat, there is sufficient history of huge leads evaporating with just a wayward shot or two.
Before the start of play, the odds on Tiger Woods had already shifted with Jordan Spieth being the new favourite with the bookies. That position has only been further underlined with Spieth now being the firm favourite after his 66 and Woods being relegated to 20:1 with many of those in red numbers in between. As expected, there is a huge bunching of extraordinary talent within four shots of the lead. Rory McIlroy is looking very, very good and focused to complete his tryst with destiny to join the very few who have won a career grand slam. I guess his next ambition would be to win a “Tiger slam” which is to hold all four slam titles at the same time. Because of his prodigious length off the tee, his exciting courage and boldness, and his peaking at just the right time, he is the one to watch.
Matt Kuchar is looking exceptionally good in his usual understated way; he has often challenged at the Masters before and will be a serious contender this year as well. He, sort of, comes in a bit under the radar, and should he be a real possibility in the final nine, the shouts of “Koooch” from appreciative patrons will rend the air.
Last year’s champion Garcia is out of the race for sure (unless he shoots a record breaking 62 on the Friday and then repeats that on the weekend); Justin Rose who had lost to him in last year’s playoff, birdied the 18th to reach level par and to indicate his clear intent of rectifying last year’s Green Jacket being virtually ripped off his shoulders. And of course, Phil Mickelson is very much in the running for his own tryst with destiny.
Despite the fact that the playing conditions were sunny and perfect with not much wind, there were only 20 out of 87 players who shot under par. The greens were faster than during the practice rounds and the pin positions such that really low scoring was difficult. On Sunday they will be even more strategically located where precise placement of approach shots will be rewarded and anything even a foot or two off may drift 60-70 feet away into three putt territory.
The stage is being set by the puppeteers according to the script that is written by the ultimate dramatist. He (she) will weigh and measure each man’s worthiness and determine how the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune might evade the selected winner. That gauntlet, through which all challengers must pass, is being prepared even as we retire for the night. The second act is tomorrow; there will be many side stories to the main one which will certainly exclude half this field. Wait and see.