Lee Westwood

Lee Westwood

Westwood takes a step toward a major

AUGUSTA, Ga. — With his words and then his play, Lee Westwood shot down the notion Thursday that this Masters was a two-horse race.

AUGUSTA, Ga. — With his words and then his play, Lee Westwood shot down the notion Thursday that this Masters was a two-horse race.

On a busy opening day at Augusta National that featured mud, a little rain and a snowman on the final hole for Henrik Stenson, Westwood provided a steady hand Thursday with seven birdies for a 5-under 67 that gave him a one-shot lead.

It was the first time Westwood has led after the opening round of a major, though that was little comfort. Louis Oosthuizen made four birdies over the last five holes for a 68, while Peter Hanson of Sweden made six birdies for his 68. Bubba Watson, blasting tee shots with his pink driver, was among six players at 69.

Westwood had said it would be naive for anyone to think this major was only about Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy.

Those two horses were happy to still be in the running.

Woods took two penalty shots, hit three tee shots that rattled the pines and was thrilled to make bogey on his last hole for a 72, the first time since 2008 that he failed to break par in the opening round of the Masters.

“I had some of the worst golf swings I’ve ever hit today,” Woods said.

Mike Weir of Bright’s Grove, Ont., was also in the large group at even 72.

McIlroy opened with a double bogey, though his big moment was on the 10th hole. A year ago, that’s where his Sunday collapse began with a hooked tee shot into the cabins for a triple bogey. This time, he pushed a three-wood into the trees on the other side and managed a par.

“That was a bit of an improvement from the last time I played it,” McIlroy said.

Better yet was a birdie-birdie finish, including a 15-foot putt from the fringe on the 18th that gave him a 71, making him one of 28 players who broke par and were within four shots of the lead.

“It was huge,” McIlroy said. “I didn’t feel like I had my best out there. To finish under par for the day, I’m very pleased.”

Along with Woods smiling after a 72, three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson was delighted with a 74. He sprayed tee shots all over the course, including one so far left on the 10th into bushes he didn’t know existed that he never found his ball. Mickelson made a triple bogey there, then spent the rest of the back nine scrambling for his life.

He recounted all the bad shots, the missed opportunities, the triple bogey, and decided the glass was half full, almost spilling over.

“This is good news,” Mickelson said. “Because if I can get hot tomorrow, I’m playing good enough to shoot 6 or 7 under, and I’ll be right in it for the weekend. Fortunately, I didn’t shoot myself out of it.”

Luke Donald, the No. 1 player in the world, had a few nervous moments, and that was after he signed for a 75. When his card was sent to the scoring room to be entered into the computer, an official accidentally punched in a birdie 3 for the fifth hole, even though Donald three-putted for a 5. The leaderboard showed him with a 73.

It took about two hours to clear up the confusion.

“This place, if you are a little bit off, it can eat you up,” Donald said.

Donald and Westwood are the only two players to be No. 1 without ever having won a major. Westwood is atop the list of the best who have never won a Grand Slam event — 36 wins around the world, formerly No. 1 in the world and a half-dozen close calls in the majors, including a runner-up finish at the Masters two years ago.

“I’ve come close,” Westwood said. “I’ve won all there is to win other than a major championship. That’s my primary focus and it’s been a long time coming around since the PGA last year.”

Westwood made his move on the front nine when he ran off four straight birdies, all of them inside 10 feet, including a difficult pitch from short of the par-5 eighth green that settled within tap-in range.

Despite the soft conditions from storms earlier in the week, the scoring wasn’t as low as some thought. Westwood’s caddie, Billy Foster, walked the course earlier in the day and sent back a scouting report.

“Billy had sent me a text saying that the pins were tough,” Westwood said. “He used slightly more flowering language than that, but we’ll stick to tough. So I knew it was a day for patience.”

Stenson celebrated his 36th birthday with a 31 on the front nine, including eagles on both par 5s, and he was the only player to reach 6-under par during the round. It just didn’t last.

He hooked his drive into the trees on the 18th, took two shots to get back to the fairway, sent a wedge over the green and took four shots to get down from there. He wound up with a quadruple-bogey 8 — known as a “snowman” in golf vernacular — which matched the highest score on the 18th hole in Masters history.

That dropped him to a 71, not bad considering his last two opening rounds at Augusta were an 80 and an 83, but still not what he wanted.

“You make a little mistake, and then you compound it with another one, and it just keeps on snowballing,” Stenson said. “And I got the snowman in the end. What to do?”

Paul Lawrie made two eagles on the back nine to join the group at 69 that included Miguel Angel Jimenez, Edoardo Molinari, Ben Crane and Jason Dufner, who lost in a playoff at the PGA Championship last summer.

Only nine players managed to break 70, and the scoring was so bunched that only eight of the 96 players were 10 shots behind, the measure for making the cut on Friday.

“There’s still a lot of world class players there and a lot of them playing well, and majors are hard to win as it is,” Westwood said. “I’m going to have to play as good, if not better, than I did today to carry on in the position I’m in.”

Woods had an inkling of what to expect. He was on his way to the putting green when he ducked into the clubhouse, glanced at the computer and was surprised to see so few birdies. Once he teed off, it all made sense.

The pins were tucked in some of the tougher positions at the Masters, especially for the opening round, such as a right pin on the par-3 12th typically only seen on a Sunday.

“It was what I expected throughout the week, but maybe not on Thursday,” Zach Johnson said after a 70.

And it sure wasn’t easy getting at some of those pins with splotches of mud on the ball. Keegan Bradley had to deal with it on the opening hole. His shot went left of the bunker and he made double bogey. Steve Stricker was trying to lay up on the par-5 eighth hole when mud on his ball caused it to veer sharply to the left and into the pines. He made bogey.

Kyle Stanley was asked where he had to cope with mud.

“One, two, five, 10, 11, 13, 15,” he said. “That was it.”

Woods had other issues.

With thousands of fans lining the first fairway, they looked toward the sky to find the flight of his ball and figured out where it went by the sound of a hard, hollow knock striking Georgia pine. On the next hole, he pulled his tee shot toward the creek for a penalty shot. In both cases, he escaped with par by making putts of eight and five feet.

But there was no escaping the finish. A tee shot to the left on the 17th left him no angle to get on the green, so Woods hit into the front bunker and failed to save par. And on the 18th, another wild hook went into the trees. Woods had to take a penalty stroke to get relief, and only a delicate pitch left of the green allowed him to save bogey.

Woods usually talks about the shots that got away. This time, there weren’t many.

“Today I squeezed a lot out of that round,” he said. “I just felt my way around today. I know how to play this golf course. I think it’s just understanding what I need to do.”

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