86th Masters, You’re Invited

Tiger Woods returned with a 1-under 71 at Augusta National. (Keyur Khamar/PGA TOUR)

AUGUSTA, Ga. – A quick look at the opening round of The Masters, where Tiger Woods made his comeback, Sungjae Im holds the lead and several big names are lurking.

THE LEADER

Sungjae Im began his round with three straight birdies and eagled the par-5 13th hole on the way to a 5-under 67 in the first round, giving him the solo lead. Im, who picked up his second PGA TOUR victory at the Shriners Children’s Open earlier this season, has admittedly battled inconsistency since then, but said he got “good vibes” from a tee shot his father, Ji Taek, hit within 5 feet on the ninth hole of the Par 3 Contest on Wednesday. “It was the ninth hole, the final hole of the Par 3 Contest,” said Im, 24. “And when he was setting up, I remember the group behind us, we were at the tee box, Scottie Scheffler, Sam Burns and Billy Horschel, they were just having fun and having a crack at my dad, and it got me, too, so I was laughing. But once he hit the shot, it was the most beautiful shot I’ve seen. It was like a professional shot. It was definitely a fun day and a memorable one.”

STORYLINES

ON THE PROWL: Tiger Woods’ return was the day’s dominant story. In his first official round since November 2020, Woods exceeded expectations with a 1-under 71. Despite having what he described as an “awful” warm-up session, he made three birdies – including a near-ace at No. 6 and a 30-footer on the 16th – and just two bogeys. Woods walked slowly, with a slight hitch in his gait, and occasionally used his club for support while strolling down the fairways. He struggled with a left miss off the tee but still averaged 288 yards with his drives and reached the green in two at the par-5 13th. Woods only hit nine greens and eight fairways but used his experience around a venue where he’s won five times to his advantage. “To play this golf course and to do what I did today, … to hit the shots in the right spots, I know where to hit it to a lot of these pins, and I miss in the correct spots and give myself good angles,” he said. “I did that all day, and I was able to make a few putts and end up in the red like I am now.”

TOUGH GOING: Augusta National may have been drenched by rain in the days leading up to the Masters but softer conditions didn’t lead to low scoring. The field averaged nearly 74 strokes per round Thursday. A tricky, inconsistent wind made it harder for players to gauge their approach shots, as did the occasional mud ball.

Conditions are expected to get even tougher over the next two days as colder, drier air moves into the region. Both days will feature lows in the 40s and wind gusts around 25 mph. The low temperature Sunday is forecast to be 37 degrees.

BIRDIE SANDWICH: PLAYERS champion Cameron Smith sandwiched eight birdies between double-bogeys on his first and last holes to shoot 68 on Thursday. Thursday was Smith’s first competitive round in 2 ½ weeks, but he continued his strong season with another good round at Augusta National. In his previous start, at THE PLAYERS, he won the largest first prize ever awarded at for a single PGA TOUR event. He also won the Sentry Tournament of Champions in January by shooting the lowest score in relation to par in PGA TOUR history. The Australian arrived at Augusta National ranked sixth in the world and third in the FedExCup. Smith, who has three top-10s in his last four Masters starts, is trying to join Tiger Woods as the only players to win THE PLAYERS and the Masters in the same year. Smith’s average proximity to the hole on his approach shots today was 21 feet, 7 inches, nearly 8 feet closer than the second-ranked player in that stat, Rory McIlroy.

NET EFFECT: Thunderstorms impeded players pre-tournament preparations, forcing the course to be closed early Tuesday and Wednesday. Harry Higgs got creative to get his swings in before his Masters debut, however. His brother/caddie, Alex, and agent went to Dick’s Sporting Goods on Tuesday to buy a net, allowing Higgs to hit balls on the porch of his rental home. “It’s one thing to feel that just holding a club and making air swings, let’s say, and it’s another to hit a golf ball and hit it into a net,” Higgs said after shooting 71. “So we made a makeshift net, covered it with some sheets and towels to make sure that it didn’t hit off the little bull’s-eye and come flying back at us. Yeah, it was fun. Everybody in the house just sat around and basically watched me hit balls.

* Information and images credit to www.masters.com & www.pgatour.com

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