Adam Scott lapped up the familiar surrounds of Augusta National to put himself in contention at the Masters again today, along with an ailing Jason Day and fellow-Queenslander Cameron Smith.
But it is multiple major winner Brooks Koepka and another American, Bryson DeChambeau, who need to be chased down after they shot 66s on the opening day of the year’s first major.
Scott, the 2013 Masters champion, opened beautifully with a three-under par 69 on a course set-up that played tough on the opening day, sitting tied-sixth overall. “It’s the dream start,’’ he told the broadcaster later. “It’s what you want to happen out here.”
The 38-year-old is three shots from the lead held by the 2017 and 2018 US Open champion and 2018 US PGA champion Koepka, who opened with a 66 along with DeChambeau, who birdied the last three holes including a near-ace at the 16th, a chip-in at the 17th and a bounce off the flag stick at the 18th.
Koepka and DeChambeau are a shot ahead of three-time winner Phil Mickelson (67) and a further shot in advance of Englishman Ian Poulter and world No. 2 Dustin Johnson at four-under 68. Four-time winner Tiger Woods also is in the mix at 70, but favourite Rory McIlroy is well back after an opening 73 that included bogeys at his last two holes.
Most of the best players in the world are right there, and in a bunched leaderboard there are plenty of Australians in the reckoning. Queenslander Cameron Smith (tied-11th) also began well with a two-under par 70, Day limped his way around the course but managed to cobble a 70 and Victorian Marc Leishman opened with an even-par 72.
Day’s status for the rest of the tournament is unclear. He is still battling the back injury that he suffered earlier this season that forced him to have a series of epidural injections, and he aggravated it this morning when he bend down to kiss his daughter, Lucy, on the putting green. By the second hole he was having physiotherapy on the course, and he looked distinctly uncomfortable all day.
But he worked through the pain and when he rolled in a putt for birdie at the par-three 16th he was right in contention, before a three-putt bogey at the 17th took some of his momentum.
Scott started quietly but then birdied the par-five eighth hole from the fringe and then hit it in tight from the pine straw at the ninth to pick up another shot with a left-to-right sliding putt. He got hot after that, despite a bogey at the iconic par-three 12th. Making birdies at the par-five 13th, hitting a beautiful shot on to the green at the par-five 15th for another and then taking birdie at the 17th and 18th from just beyond three metres to card three-under.
“Some tough pins today, a few pins I’ve never seen before,” he said later. “It felt like it was hard to attack even though you were hitting it well and I was putting most of the day from 30-feet plus and it’s hard to make them. But I stayed patient.”
The Queenslander was particularly encouraged by his finish, with three birdies in the last four holes. “I got some good numbers coming in and I managed to get the ball nicely under the hole and made a couple of putts.’’
Smith, who finished in the top five last year, almost holed out on the par-three 16th and was generally steady in his opening 70.
Leishman had three bogeys and a double bogey at the par-four 10th but threw in some good golf to shoot 72 and not do too much damage to his cause. At 10, he was in an awkward spot, right of the greenside bunker, ultimately flicking a lob wedge into the sand and making a six.
But Scott was widely-tipped as the most prominent Australian given his good putting of late, and he justified the optimism. “I’m happy that I’m not going to be so far back chasing for the next few days,” he said.
The 28-year-old Koepka was the eye-catcher, with five birdies in a back nine of 31 in a week when he was accused by the television analyst Brandel Chamblee of “reckless self-sabotage”. Koepka has admitted he lost some weight recently for an ESPN photo shoot, leading to Chamblee’s allegation of bloated ego, but he had the last laugh today.
He has won three of the last six majors that he has contested. He is a considerable force at this level, to say the very least, and had his birdie putt at the 18th not slid under the hole he would have had the lead to himself.