Hoffman enjoys Augusta in person, too

Associated Press

Augusta, Ga. — Charley Hoffman considers himself quite the veteran of the Masters. Whenever he's not playing, this storied tournament is must-see TV for him.

Playing, however, is much more fun than watching.

Being in contention after the first 18 holes is even better.

Playing Augusta National for just the second time, and first since 2011, Hoffman put his unusual experience to work Thursday. He turned in his best round here with a 5-under 67, and he's much happier playing than being frustrated by having to watch at home.

"That means I wasn't winning golf tournaments," Hoffman said. "So my main goal is to win golf tournaments, and obviously you have to win golf tournaments to get here to the Masters. And no, I think the Masters does a great job with TV. It's just a fun tournament to watch and all the great past champions, and I think it's the one if I'm not in, I do tune in."

Hoffman earned his spot this week by winning the OHL Classic at Mayakoba in Mexico in November — the final PGA Tour event of the 2014 calendar year. That was his third career title and first in 109 starts. That was the second drought after going 105 starts between his win at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic in 2007 and the 2010 Deutsche Bank Championship.

The wait between titles was so long that Hoffman and his wife, pregnant at the time of his second win in 2010, celebrated the win in Mexico with their 4-year-old daughter Claire. Adding to the joy? Knowing he was Augusta-bound once again.

"I was just trying to win a golf tournament on the PGA Tour so I could get back here," Hoffman said.

His tee time at the Masters made his return even more special. Hoffman started in the first group in a twosome with Brian Harman following the ceremonial tee shots by Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player. Once Hoffman saw the schedule, he bought a couple flags and got autographs from Nicklaus and Palmer to auction off for his foundation.

"Gary walked away so I went, I'd better get Jack and Arnie before I lose it all," Hoffman said. "I'll try at some point to get Gary to sign the two that they signed, and that would be pretty cool."

If he can keep up his play, Hoffman could get that chance soon. He started off with five birdies, an eagle and two bogeys. A man who likes to play quickly said he appreciated the honor of being in the first group because that gave him the chance to hit and go with no waiting.

Hoffman had to shake off some nerves after getting those autographs as he hooked his tee shot into the ninth fairway before hitting back and two-putting to save par. Then he birdied three of his next four holes, taking advantage of softer greens thanks to a humid morning. His longest birdie putt was from 4 feet on the par-5 No. 2.

After a bogey at No. 11, he stuck a 20-degree hybrid from 240 yards to 12 feet for eagle on the 530-yard par-5 15th. Then he birdied Nos. 16 and 18, finishing by sticking a 6-iron to 3 feet for a score that was two strokes better than any of his four rounds here in 2011.

Hoffman has played well this year, tying for second at the Humana Challenge. He also was the first-round leader at Valero Texas two weeks ago with an opening 67 before tying for 11th. He then tied for 11th in Houston before coming to Georgia.

"It's the coveted Green Jacket you want to get," Hoffman said. "I'm trying to approach it like if I get in position, I'm going to be aggressive. If I get out of position, I'm going to try to get back in position just like any other golf tournament. It worked today. I don't know if it's going to work tomorrow or the next day, but I'm going to try to keep my game plans I have going into it."

Good day for Els

Ernie Els' love-hate relationship with the Masters is trending in the right direction again.

The four-time major winner made a nice recovery from the trees to save par at No. 1, then slowly picked up momentum en route to a 67 that left in a four-way tie for second behind leader Jordan Spieth. Both Els' score and placement marked first-round bests for the South African, competing in his 21st Masters.

"I remember vividly my first Masters, '94, like I played it yesterday," Els recalled. "I played with Ben Crenshaw … shot 66 in the second round with Ben and he was so gracious, so nice, and said, "You know, you're going to win this tournament if you keep putting like that."

Els, 45, shared in the knowing laughs that reverberated through the interview room. Nicknamed the "Big Easy," he's won two U.S. and British Opens, but nothing has come easy at Augusta.

He's been runner-up twice, most recently in 2004, when Phil Mickelson dropped an 18-foot birdie putt at the final hole to win by a stroke. It was a particularly tough loss, since Els hadn't finished worse than sixth in the four years previous. He's finished no better than a tie for 18th in the years since, including four missed cuts and failing to qualify in 2012. He likened it to a "hangover."

"Definitely, must be," Els said. "Definitely. I was trying to wipe it under the carpet that I wanted this one so badly for so many years; definitely, there was something going on. Kind of, you get fed up with yourself. Never with Augusta, you know, but yourself with the mistakes that you make.

"I kind of doubt, not doubted, but I felt that I left shots out there in that span, that five-, six-year span," he added. "So a little frustration set in there, yeah."

Despite a three-putt bogey at No. 18, Els saw plenty of reason for optimism. He made an eagle and five birdies, continuing a scoring streak that began at Bay Hill (21 birdies) and stretched through last week at Houston (20).

"So that means that when I'm on, I'm doing something well. But I've had the odd bad hole here and there. So I've been trying to stay patient today," he said, "and felt very comfortable on the greens.'

Yet he also acknowledged feeling more pressure with advancing age. Since he won the British Open already into his 40s, someone asked what a second major at this stage of his career would mean.

"Well, that's the plan," he said to laughter. "So we'll see what happens."

Like old times

Tom Watson showed the younger guys he can still get it done.

It's been awhile since the 65-year-old faced a putt he really wanted to make at Augusta National. And it wasn't for the lead, to make the cut or for a Green Jacket.

His putt from just inside 10 feet for a 1-under 71 allowed him to break par for the first time at the tournament since 2010.

"It's fun to be able to at least be in red figures Augusta National," Watson said. "At my age, it's a minor miracle."