Date: April 07, 2017
Author: Martin Blake

MASTERS: Hoffman on fire, Leish best Aussie

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson withdrew and most of the players including all but one of the Australians — Marc Leishman — struggled in gusty winds at Augusta National as the Masters got underway today.

American Charley Hoffman had an amazing day, shooting seven-under par 65 with a back nine of 31 to lead by a whopping four shots, an incredible round of golf on a day when the scoring average was almost 75.

Californian Hoffman, 40, has won four times on the US PGA Tour but his only top-10 finish in a major was his tie-ninth at Augusta in 2015.

His margin is the highest for more than 60 years and threatened the Masters first-round record of a five-shot lead, held by Craig Wood back in 1941, when he opened with a 66. Wood won the tournament; Hoffman has some work to do yet. "Will I sleep perfectly tonight? Probably not,'' he said.

Leishman, the world No. 27, was solid, reflecting his recent good form, carding an one-over-par 73 with just two bogeys and a birdie. The Victorian, a winner on tour this year, is tied-19th after round one.

Fellow-Australian Jason Day carded a two-over 74 that is quite respectable in the circumstances, along with veteran Rod Pampling, with Adam Scott having a 75 that included three-putt bogeys at both the final two holes. Perth amateur Curtis Luck began with a six-over par 78.

Day had a double bogey six at the par-four 11th hole at Amen Corner when his approach flew long, left and into the pond, but he made nice birdies at the 15th and 16th holes to retrieve his balance.

"It's just hard,'' he told Fox Sports. "It's blowing pretty strong from the west, you get in amongst these trees and it's swirling. You've got to hit it on the right gust. You've got to commit to the shot you're actually hitting because if you don't it's magnified by a hundred and it just goes off. An easy one to think about is 11 … I was trying to hit a dead-straight shot, and I was literally  only a degree off … it turned over, went left and went in the water. You have to be spot-on.''

Only a slim percentage of the field broke par on a tough day in the year's first major, and the difficulty of the conditions was summed up by Jordan Spieth's quadruple-bogey nine at the par-five 15th hole, his third shot spinning back into the water in front of the green. Scott had a one-metre putt to negotiate at one point, and when he marked and then replaced his ball on the green it promptly rolled to four metres from the hole.

Earlier there was a bitter-sweet and emotional opening to the tournament, with honorary starters Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus hitting the first tee shots and paying a wonderful tribute to the late Arnold Palmer, but then tournament favorite Johnson having to withdraw.

The American injured his back in a fall from a set of stairs at his Augusta rental house on Wednesday night, and attempted to play. He arrived early for his 2pm tee time, warmed up and told organisers he would try to tee it up. But after one practice swing on the first tee he withdrew, saying he was in too much pain on the through-swing and at impact.

“I slipped down the stairs, and there were only three stairs,” Johnson said. “It would have been better if it was a full staircase because I might have slid more. Instead, I just kind of stopped and hit.”

The wind is forecast to blow again tomorrow and Day, who came in with no form to speak of after withdrawing from the Dell Matchplay to spend time with his seriously-ill mother Dening, was clear about what lies ahead for him.

"I drove it well today, didn't quite get enough opportunities on the greens close enough. It's obviously understandable with what the scores are doing out there today and how the course is playing. It was good to get a birdie on 15 and 16, and just keep grinding. That's the main goal tomorrow: keep grinding and get yourself up near the leader.''

Hoffman looked as though he was playing a different course today, rolling in five birdies on the back nine, and falling just short with another chance at the 18th. His closest-pursuer is compatriot William McGirt (69), while Lee Westwood is back in contention after his 70. Veteran Phil Mickelson is among the group at 71 while of the favorites, Rory McIlroy had 72 and Spieth 75.