Thursday's Masters: Imperfect 9 scuttles Els' hopes
Augusta, Ga. — Ernie Els was 2 feet from a par to start the Masters.
Twenty-four measly inches.
Then, the unimaginable happened.
One miss. And another. And another. And another. And another. And another.
Finally, on his sixth putt — a one-handed swat that showed his total disgust — Els finished off a quintuple-bogey 9 that essentially ruined any hope of him contending for a Green Jacket on the very first hole Thursday.
Talk about a hard one to take for the Big Easy.
“I can’t explain it,” said Els, who went on to shoot an 8-over 80 that matched his highest score ever at Augusta National and left him a whopping 14 shots behind leader Jordan Spieth. “You’re not able to do what you normally do. It’s unexplainable.”
Els posted the worst score ever at No. 1, a 445-yarder known as “Tea Olive.” No one at the Masters had ever gone higher than 8 on the par-4 hole.
Making the whole scene downright surreal, none of the putts appeared longer than about 4 feet. Video quickly began making the rounds on social media showing Els knocking the ball back and forth past the cup, totally bedeviled by the slick, treacherous greens at Augusta National.
Tom Watson walked up to his tee shot on the 18th fairway, sized up his approach, reached into his bag and pulled the cover off his 3-wood.
That, golf fans, is why Watson is saying goodbye to the Masters after this week.
“I had 205 yards to the front of the green, and they’re 60 yards ahead of me on the hill,” Watson said of the others in his threesome, Lee Westwood and Charley Hoffman. “And … Westwood’s caddie said there are people who hit it 40 yards past Lee on that hill. It’s a game of length. I used to play it when I was a kid.”
The 66-year-old, two-time winner of the Green Jacket made bogey on No. 18 to close out a windblown opening-round 2-over 74. He finished the day tied for 43rd and still well within range of making the top 50 after Friday. If he does, he’ll hit the goal he set this week: to become the oldest player to make the cut at Augusta National.
“Seventy-four is not bad for old folks,” Watson said.
It would’ve been 73 had his ball not moved on the seventh green, a split second after he addressed the near-gimme 2-footer with his putter. Watson said he caused the ball to move. That’s a one-shot penalty.
About an hour earlier, he hit out of a fairway bunker on No. 3 and snaked in a curving 45-footer for his first and only birdie of the round. Teeing off among the early wave of players, that put “T. Watson” on the leaderboard for a bit.
A blast from the past.
But Watson knows Augusta National is neither the Augusta National of his youth — nor is it Turnberry, where he shocked golf seven years ago and almost won the British Open at 59.
Turnberry is the shortish, links-style course where, for 71 holes, Watson made anything seem possible in 2009 before making bogey on the 72nd and falling to Stewart Cink in a heartbreaking playoff.
Augusta, which has been Tiger-proofed, supersized and otherwise beefed up over the last two decades, throws a wet towel on dreams like that.
“I don’t have the tools,” said Watson, who last year followed an opening-round 71 with an 81 that sent him home for the weekend. “I don’t have the length to play this golf course.”
With the wind behind him on No. 14, he hit what he called a good drive down the middle of the fairway. But he still needed a 5-iron to get to the green — a shot that could not be gently arced to stop on a dime when it landed.
The shot was so risky that Jordan Spieth’s caddie practically begged him not to try it.
A great shot always beats a bad decision.
“That was one of the best shots I’ve ever hit in tournament competition given where it was,” Spieth said of his escape from the pine trees on the 11th hole. “And I was laughing afterwards. That’s how dumb the decision was, and pulled it off.”
Spieth was coming off a birdie on the 10th that put him at 4 under and in the lead during a deceptively windy day. He blocked his tee shot to the right on the 11th hole and didn’t have many options. His ball was on the pine straw. By going through the widest gaps in the trees, he figured the best he could have done was punch it out to 100 yards or more from the green. His caddie, Michael Greller, at one point motioned back to the fairway.
Spieth picked the tiny gap in the trees.
“I would like, if anyone gets a chance, to go look at that shot,” Spieth said after his 6-under 66. “Because Michael did everything in his power to call me off of hitting that shot. I had a 4-iron in my hands from about 210 (yards). And I had a gap where it had to rise over a tree, under another branch and split.”
So why bother?
It came off perfectly, though there was one last moment where Spieth held his breath. The ball took a hard hop to the left when it reached the green, running fast toward the water. He bit his lip. He grit his teeth and said quietly, “Bite.” It held up on the collar, and Spieth repeatedly slapped his thigh.
He had to made a 7-foot putt to escape with par.