Somewhere in Friday’s broadcast on the Golf Channel, the leaderboard was moving like a bunch on icebergs on a collision course with each other and the narrows. Really big names, really exciting names moving to the top and with ESPN yet to begin the live broadcast.
And Kelly Tilghman said, “We’ve got a great leaderboard.” And then a half a beat later, “But I guess we always have great leaderboards at the Masters.”
Her comment so perfectly captured the momentum and the excitement of the Masters in a moment of transitions, that with the live broadcast still to begin, the anticipation was almost sublime. And after the leaders played a six hour round for us, that’s the way it ended too.
Jason Day shot the best score of the day, a 4-under 68 and climbed to the top of the heap. And that was with his tee ball in the water on the par-3 12th (he saved a bogey with a great up and down). He’s been close to winning this thing before (T2 in 2011) and he is almost reverent about his chances to finally seal the deal.
And he finds himself sidled up in the first day of twosomes on Saturday with the apparently irrepressible, Fred Couples, who claims that if he can keep hitting it long off the tee as he has for the first two days, he has a chance. But if he can’t pump it out there and ends up with middle and long irons, he has no chance. He doesn’t look like that’s going to happen and he says his body feels good.
First round leader, Marc Leishman, looked like he would inevitably fade away with two early bogeys, but then he snapped back with immediately following birdies that got him to 14 all even. He bogeyed 14 to go to 5-under for the tournament and that’s where he admirably finished. The guy hits it a ton but still seems to be able to play in control.
He will be paired with Argentina’s, Angel Cabrera, another guy who looked like he was fading away with two early bogeys but then saved his best for last: he birdied 5 of the last 6 holes. Somewhere along the way, he had an epiphany with his driver.
Jim Furyk is T4 with Cabrera and Brandt Snedeker at 4-under, which is pretty amazing since he laid up too close to the par-5 15th and then dunked his ball due to the awkwardness of the severely downhill, “jammed up” shot he was left with; he hit it fat. The double bogey ruined a real good round but not his chances. He’ll be paired with Snedeker on Saturday.
“Sneds” traded three bogeys and birdies on the front and then save the round with two closing birdies on 16 and 18. Never say die. He didn’t catch a lot of ink after the first round because even though it was also a 2-under round, he peppered it with so many bogeys and a double that it looked like he wasn’t playing well. Augusta can do that to you.
Adam Scott and Jason Dufner, T7 at 3-under, shot reciprocal 69, 72s with Dufner posting the 69 on Friday. The laconic one sneaking up the leaderboard; and if he gets hot, his placid attitude could lift him up the leaderboard as if it wasn’t happening. That would be still another example of “Dufnering.” He was only 3-under on the day, but he made seven birdies.
And then the two most successful Brits, David Lynn and Lee Westwood, also T7, managed to get themselves paired up for Saturday. At least there won’t be a language barrier. Just a joke! They actually played very well — 1-over and 1-under respectively — but they did it with very clean cards compared to most. That kind of consistency can get a guy to thinking…
Justin Rose and K.J. Choi, also T7, share in common that they both messed up a great run of birdies with bogeys that made it look like they didn’t know how to play. Rose has been playing very well of late and Choi had that Cheshire cat smile on his face a couple of times during the day. If these two get it smoothed out, the resulting, high-pitched excitement could cause a language barrier.
And the last of the T7s, Tiger Woods, deserved better. He played like a maestro all day long. His shots were too perfect; he hit the pin with his laid up approach shot on the par-5 15th and it spun back into the front pond. His best option was to replay the shot and, aiming away from the pin this time, he zipped it to three feet. That’s precision. On his approach shot on 18, he hit it so pure, instead of the ball hitting into the backstop above the pin and rolling back down, his shot hit towards the top and skipped up on the back tier. He three-putted from there. As a measure of his new-found self-discipline, his facial expression never changed on either shot, the first one being a real test of imperviousness to setbacks.
Those are all of the guys within three shots.
Four shots back is no less talent in: up-and-coming Spaniard, Gonzalo Fernandez-Costano (he sounds just like Jose Maria Olazabal), Champions Tour superstar and Hall of Famer, Bernhard Langer, Sergio Garcia, Rory McIlroy, Charl Schwartzel and John Senden, who played great for a long time Friday until two late bogeys on 16 and 17. When I interviewed him at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship a year ago, he said that he was working on playing with freedom and that’s what it appeared he was doing Friday.
Five shots back we have: former champion, Trevor Immelman, part-timer, Steve Stricker, Dustin Johnson, who was playing great until he needed his short game to save him starting at 14, Bill Haas, Matt Kuchar, Ryan Moore and Luke Donald.
These last two groups need big moves on Saturday because the tradition is that the winner almost always comes from the last two twosomes.
And finally, we have Mr. Tianlang Guan, the 14-year-old Chinese phenom who not only is the youngest to play in the Masters, but do to his steady play, the youngest to make the cut. At T55 and 4-over, he made it on the 10-shot rule, anyone within ten shots of the lead makes the cut.
Which is some sort of cosmic justice to everyone who was pulling for this kid. He received a one-shot penalty on the 17th hole for slow play after multiple warnings from one of the European Tour’s most respected officials. Most players who were asked about it said that if he had been warned and then had a bad time, they were okay that it had been assessed. The rule is the rule and the Tour is having a terrible time with slow play. But everybody hated that it was assessed, especially all the way on the 17th hole with Guan of the verge of history. Thank God for the 10-shot rule.
As another measure of this young man’s poise, when he was asked about the penalty in his first post-round interview with CBS, he politely said that he agreed with the ruling. I assume that he received some coaching from people supporting him because that response seemed beyond most 14-year-olds.
And lest you think his talent is some sort of aberration — well, it is, but maybe it’s also the leading edge of what’s to come — I receive hundreds of hits on my blog from China each day, including Guan’s hometown of Guangzhou. This is also the hometown of Shanshan Feng, winner of the LPGA Championship and the first person from China to win a major.
So Saturday will be such a grand day of golf, I’m giving up my own to watch. And I’m sure many others out here in the Western time zones will be too. Hey, it’s the Masters!