It might be possible that I don’t know anything. It might be possible that all of the pundits don’t know anything. The guys we all thought would be at the top of the leaderboard are strewn down in the middle of it. And the guys that few people thought would perform well are, well, performing well.
Beginning with a mild but most important surprise, Lee Westwood is leading the tournament by one shot at 5-under par. It’s a surprise in one sense because he didn’t seem to be getting a lot of love from the pundits, including me. I looked at his name as I wrote Thursday’s preview post and chose not to mention him.
That had as much to do with the fact that for all his accomplishment, he’s yet to get over the hurdle of winning his first major. Which, when you look at him in person, is hard to understand. When I saw him in the interview room at the Accenture Match Play Championship, you wondered how he ever lost anything. He has been hitting the gym and, believe me, he is fit. He has this presence about him. And he got all the way to the semis, so he can play. Maybe this will be the one for him.
South African, Louis Oosthuizen and Swede, Peter Hanson are T2 at 4-under. Both good players, but a bit of a surprise given the marquee players who finished behind them. It may well be that the excellent play Oosthuizen displayed in Houston that abandoned him is finally coming back into form. And he’s clearly playing for birdies; he made seven on the day. Hanson has always been known as a solid player and he certainly was Thursday. And so far this year, he’s third on the European Tour’s Race to Dubai.
Then you have a bunch of very good players at 3-under, but none thought to be threats. But when Ben Crane won last year, he had two quadruple birdie runs. Jason Dufner is my favorite stoic; he’s so into what he’s doing on the course he has only one facial expression, placid. Bubba Watson may be able to beat it and bend it, but I don’t think most people thought his game was disciplined enough for Augusta’s demands. Paul Lawrie won in Qatar this year (but on the other hand, his British Open victory was almost 14 years ago). Miguel Angel Jimenez is too old and short to be this high on the board, but there he is. And Francisco Molinari seemed a white-flash wonder when he won the WGC in Shanghai a year and a half ago. But the amazing play he exhibited that week seems to have returned.
Zach Johnson, Jim Furyk, Vijay Singh and Scott Stallings are all at 2-under. Stalling’s the most interesting because he’s a rookie and rookies aren’t supposed to do this well. But there is and he’s so devoted to the Masters, he has been using an old Masters pencil to mark his scorecards as a reminder of what he was playing for all of those formative years.
You’d have to say that it’s not much of a surprise that UCLA amateur Patrick Cantlay is one of the players at 1-under given that he’s been over-performing in almost all of his Tour appearances. But you’d also have to say that Roy McIlroy was. He was one of the two favorites, but seemed to spend most of the day playing off three weeks of rust. Stewart Cinq has been having a devil of a time of late; where did he come from? And he did it impressively; his three birdies were marred by the one mistake he made on 12 that led to a double bogey. Henrik Stenson is a surprise because at one point he lead the tournament at 6-under par. His card looked like a dream until the bogey at 16, followed by a drive into the trees that led to quadruple bogey 8 on 18. He played so good until then that he may have the wherewithal to turn it back around. Keegan Bradley made a double on 1 and a bogey on 18, but it’s no surprise that he made four birdies in between to save his chances.
The biggest surprise at even par is Tiger Woods who was supposed to be the prohibitive favorite. But he exhausted himself slapping it around with 3 birdies, 3 bogeys and the ghost of old bad swings. How he reverted from his brilliance at Bay Hill to lost in old swing moves was a great mystery to him. I suspect that it was because he was playing “perfect the golf swing” rather than playing “get the ball in the hole.” The hook into the tree line on the first hole was a clue. But you’d also have to add Hunter Mahan here after his exceptional win in Houston last week. He was 3-under through 5 and then gave it all back. He looked sparkling in his lead out, so he should be able to fix it.
It was a surprise that Phil Mickelson was at 2-over. It was a checkerboard of birdies and bogeys, but it was the lost-ball, triple bogey on 10 that did him in. Realizing that, he was very upbeat about what Friday would bring.
Graeme McDowell fought hard all day long, but the three bogeys on the back dragged him up to 3-over. The same for Adam Scott, except he did all his damage on the front and had an impressive, clean card on the back. Luke Donald needed a birdie on 17 to limit the damage to just 3-over.
And finally, it’s surprising that because of the 10-shot rule that puts the cut at the top 44 players and anyone with 10 shots of the lead, fully 87 of the 96 players in the field figure to make the cut. But Friday will be another percolating day and if Westwood extends his lead, you would expect that the normal culling would continue.
It’s a tough game and one of the purest meritocracies in sports. Just ask World Golf Hall of Fame member, Ernie Els, who’s sitting at home because he didn’t qualify for the tournament this year.