Masters 2012: Lee Westwood leads after first round as expected favorites falter

Tiger Woods’s second tee shot of the day hit, in order, a tree, a cart path, and a bush, never to be seen again. Rory McIlroy’s highly anticipated Masters began inartfully, with a double bogey. Phil Mickelson made the turn and immediately found himself shin-deep in the shrubbery, a long adventure en route to a triple bogey at the 10th. And Luke Donald, the No. 1 player in the world, briefly found himself in the midst of a clerical controversy that, for a time, held the possibility he might be disqualified.

Thus, the Masters opened oddly Thursday, with a pileup atop the leader board of names from all over the globe, most not expected to be there. South African Louis Oosthuizen, the 2010 British Open champ at St. Andrews, posted a tidy 4-under-par 68, as did late-finishing Peter Hanson of Sweden. Scotland’s Paul Lawrie, Spain’s Miguel Angel Jimenez, Italy’s Francesco Molinari, Ohio’s Ben Crane, Alabama’s Jason Dufner and Florida’s Bubba Watson all managed 3-under 69s.

And finally, late in the day, some order: Lee Westwood, the Englishman with every accomplishment other than a major championship, rolled in an eight-foot putt across the 17th green, a birdie that pushed him to 5 under and highlighted his 67. That score gave him the overnight lead by a shot over Oosthuizen and Hanson – not to mention byt four over McIlroy (71), five over Woods (72), and a stunning seven over Mickelson (74), the three players whose shadows completely obscured Westwood in the days before play began.

“Just trying to cruise my way into the tournament,” Westwood said, and that’s manageable when you hit 16 of 18 greens.

For others, the task was more difficult – in some cases dramatically so. Woods’s first tee shot went left, and he had to scramble for his par. His second tee shot traveled further left, down toward a stream alongside the par-5 second. After a drop, he somehow managed a low, screaming shot of some 200 yards, and again was able to get up-and-down for par. Though he steadied himself — getting to 2 under through 12, when he was tied for third – he closed bogey-bogey, and headed straight for the range.

“I squeezed a lot out of that round,” Woods said. “Didn’t hit it very good at all.”

Which doesn’t mean that can’t change. Woods’s opening rounds in his four victories here: 70, 70, 70, 74.

Mickelson’s task is more foreboding, and his game more confounding. His wayward drive at 10 – “horrific,” he called it — was just one example, the resulting triple bogey just his second in his 20 Masters. He spent much of the back nine at 4 over. Still, he somehow rolled in a 20-foot birdie putt at 18, and what might have been a disastrous 77 became a far-more-palatable 74.

“I’m only 2 over,” Mickelson said. “This is pretty good news.”

McIlroy, too, could have been much worse. “I didn’t feel like I had my best out there today,” he said, and it showed. But he held himself together, and grinding birdies at 17 and 18 somehow got him under par, with only 13 players between himself and the lead.

What comes next could be more confusion. Soaking rains all week have left the course more than soggy. The resulting mud sticks to balls, and players often had no idea which way a shot would travel.

“It just takes a lot of guts to aim away from some of these greens and hit it right toward the trouble when you know what’s waiting if the ball doesn’t take the mud effect,” said Stewart Cink, who managed a 71. “It’s an inexact science.”

On Wednesday, Masters Chairman Billy Payne could not rule out the possibility that officials would have to allow players to lift, clean and place their balls back in the fairway. Rain had already started again before Thursday’s round ended, and with more rain possible overnight, might such a decision be inevitable?

“It’s borderline,” said Nick Watney, who also shot 71.

For Westwood, it might not matter. Two years ago, he slept on the 54-hole lead at the Masters, played solidly in shooting 71 Sunday – and was simply beaten by Mickelson. That day, Mickelson told Westwood to keep playing the way he was, that a major would come. In the past 10 majors, he has finished in the top three five times.

“When you’re in contention and you don’t finish it off, you then go home and you assess what you did wrong and where you can improve,” Westwood said. “So that’s what I did.”

The assessment, after round one of the Masters: The course might not be intact, but Westwood’s game is. And on a volatile day, that provided some order to what might have been a downright mess.

Barry Svrluga is the national baseball writer for The Washington Post.
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