Sungjae Im leads after a day like no other at the Masters

Sungjae Im became the first South Korean to lead a round at Augusta National after opening 67.

AUGUSTA, Ga.—Thursday was a day “like no other” at Augusta National Golf Club. It was indeed Tiger Woods National Day at the Masters, more or less.

Especially more, in fact.

Woods was all the rage, you might say, as Earth’s greatest golfer and most famous celebrity made a dramatic return to competitive golf after a serious car accident more than a year ago. year. Woods wasn’t the only player to play it Thursday at the National (as insiders call it), that appeared to be the case. All eyes were inexorably pleading and intoxicating on him.

Even early Masters frontman Cameron Smith wasn’t too busy assembling an eight-bird 68 to get a look at Woods, playing in the group behind the Smith-Bryson DeChambeau duo.

“I found myself watching a few times today because we were expecting so much,” said Smith, the young Australian known as much for his unruly mullet as for winning the Players Championship last month. “I almost felt like a patron there. You can’t not watch it (Tiger). He is unreal.

All of Thursday was unreal. It was also wild, crazy, windswept and frenetic. What may have been the greatest gallery in Masters history followed Woods on that historic day, pouring down the fairways like bumper-to-bumper traffic on Los Angeles freeways. Honk if you liked the show: Woods shot 1-under 71, starting the day with a 10-foot clutch putt and ending the round with a five-foot par. He had three birdies, a few short hiccups and he caused the biggest explosion of the day when his par-3 sixth tee shot landed on the upper level of the green and jumped less than a foot from the cup .

It was a Sunday Thursday roar and it was unmistakably a tiger’s roar.

“The place was electric,” Woods said. “Having the customers completely outside and having that type of energy there was awesome to feel. I’m very lucky to have this opportunity to be able to play… People have no idea how hard it was.

Smith picked up where he left off in his last tournament, the Players, where he notched 10 birdies in the final at TPC Sawgrass. He started Thursday’s round with a double bogey after penetrating the deeply boring first hole fairway bunker and finished the round with another double after spraying a drive into the trees on the right, dribbled a shot, pitched then three long distance putts. .

If it’s possible that a 68 opening could be disappointing on a gusty afternoon, this one was. Two double bogeys are not easy to forget. Or maybe they are.

“I’ve already moved on,” said Smith, whose heroism included a birdie chip-in on the fifth hole. “I’m done. The stuff in between was really nice. Yeah, I’ll just take the positives from it.

Thursday’s rankings featured a mix of familiar names and a few surprises.

South Korean Sungjae Im, a two-time PGA Tour winner with the idle backswing, hit the 13th hole en route to shooting 67, the lowest round of the day. He played a nice hybrid shot eight feet under the hole on the 13th and made the putt. It came after a quick start when he birdied the first three holes. His 67 made him the first South Korean to lead the Masters after any round.

“The records are still great, but I try not to think about it,” Im said. “There are three days left to play and I have to be ready to do the same.”

A look at the executives felt like the sequel to “Hot Tub Time Machine,” which was unfairly snubbed by the Oscars. I’m tied with Smith for second place in the 2020 Masters, that one played in November due to the pandemic. Dustin Johnson won that tournament and yes, he was in on it again too.

“There’s a coincidence somewhere,” Im said through an interpreter. “I looked at the leaderboard and it was pretty cool to see we were all up there together.”

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Johnson, a former world No. 1 player, was 4 under par over 10 holes and looked like he was stepping back in time – or the tub. With soft, forgiving greens and slower-than-usual green speeds, just like in 2020, Johnson looked set to go the extra mile. He lay on the normally accessible par 5 holes, 13 and 15, and made pars, hit a few ineffective corners and bugged 17 on the way for 69.

It wasn’t exactly a ride of what could have been. Johnson struggled with his driver early, then switched to his 3 wood off the tee for most of the day. He headed to the practice field after the round to fix issues with his driver’s swing for Friday, as weather forecasts call for cooler temperatures and stronger, stronger winds.

Besides Johnson, there were other non-surprises. Among them is Scottie Scheffler, whose three recent wins have propelled him to No. 1 in the world rankings. A bogey at 18 left him at 69, right in the middle.

The Canadian Corey Conners was part of the group at 70 years old. Why isn’t it a surprise? He took third place in the recent World Match Play Championship and clearly has a love affair with The National, finishing eighth and 10th the past two years.

“It’s a very challenging golf course,” Conners said. “It never plays easily. With the liquidation, you have to fight hard. That is just about everything.

Chilean Joaquin Niemann is not as well known to American golf fans as he should be. He’s 23, he’s won twice on the PGA Tour, including a win this year at Riviera Country Club in the Genesis Invitational, and he’s had a few near misses, including two playoff losses. Plus, he’s a big stick, ranking fifth in driving distance, and he repeatedly flew it past Woods, who he was paired with.

Niemann had the hit of the day in the Woods-Niemann-Louis Oosthuizen group. After a big drive down the ninth fairway, he landed an approach shot past the pin. The ball came up a small ridge, then caught the slope and rolled down the hole until it hit pin dead center and fell for an eagle 2.

“I hit a good shot and then I saw people going like this,” Niemann said waving his arms, “and I knew it was going to be about to go in, and it went in. “

Niemann tossed his club into the air, then grabbed his caddy’s hand in celebration. “I hit the ball unbelievably,” he said. “It was a really nice game. Nothing was difficult today. Obviously, I have to play with Tiger. He was really nice to me. It was really fun.”

Will Zalatoris was another no-surprise although he came as a shock last year when he finished second in his first Masters. Zalatoris, a 25-year-old from Wake Forest University, birdied three en route to a 70 opener.

The first two unexpected suitors were Danny Willett, a former Masters champion, and Harry Higgs.

Willett won the 2016 Masters after Jordan Spieth hit several shots into Rae’s Creek in the final round. Willett, an Englishman, had back problems and struggled to regain regular form. He has won the European Tour three times since winning the Masters, including a few big events, the 2018 DP World Championship and the 2019 BMW PGA Championship, but has missed the cut in four of his last five Masters.

Willett, 34, was not on anyone’s list of Masters favorites. “It’s really nice to be back on the property,” Willett said after shooting 69. “You can’t come here and not wake up every morning with a smile on your face. players and impossible for patrons who walk around every day. It’s a pretty special place. It kind of gives you that little bit of butterflies walking around this place.

Higgs is a former SMU player who won once on the Korn Ferry and Latinoamerica tours. He’s had two solid years on the tour, highlighted by a fourth-place finish at last year’s PGA Championship at Kiawah Island. This season he has only managed one top 25 – ninth in the CJ Cup.

When the storms arrived and closed the course on Tuesday, Higgs’ coach and caddy visited a local sporting goods store and bought a net so Higgs could hit balls on the back porch of the house in which he is staying this week.

“It’s one thing to just hold a club and do air jumps, it’s another thing to hit a golf ball into a net,” Higgs said. “So we made a makeshift net, covered it with sheets and towels to make sure it didn’t hit the little bullseye and come back at us. It was fun. Everyone in the house sat and watched me hit balls. I hit some good shots and it turned into, OK, let’s keep feeling that.

That feeling turned into a 71. It was a good day for Higgs, who matched Woods, the player everyone was watching.

It was truly a Masters Thursday like no other.

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