AUGUSTA, Ga. — The hulking leader board behind the 17th green at Augusta National Golf Club will change over the remaining three days of the Masters, and there’s no way to tell whose names it will hold come Sunday evening. But as afternoon headed toward evening Thursday, the name atop all the others — by chance, not by achievement — was the one that matters more than others: WOODS, in all caps with red numbers behind it.
That seemed to be the development that would carry the day because combining “Tiger Woods” and “contention” and “Augusta” is normally enough.
But with the shadows lengthening, three characters — strikingly different in personality, approach and accomplishment — emerged. What an attractive leader board they provided. Put Woods and his 2-under-par 70 to the side for the moment because here came Bryson DeChambeau, the absolutely stark-raving mad scientist, clanking a 200-yard approach off the flagstick on No. 18, the last of four straight birdies to close a 66. Right behind him was three-time Masters champ Phil Mickelson, aiming to become the oldest major winner in history, rolling in an 8-footer for birdie at the last, a 67.
And in the final group, the player who is currently the most major force at major championships, Brooks Koepka, whose four-birdie run came a bit earlier in a bogey-free 66 that stood out as flawless and seemed almost effortless, tying DeChambeau for the lead, one ahead of their elder, Mickelson.
After one round, take a deep breath, exhale and store some energy for the 54 holes to come. But those three players, from the final three groups Thursday, provided a riveting start to what would appear to be a Masters with real promise to become a classic.
“There is an energy,” said DeChambeau, a 25-year-old Californian making his third appearance here. “There is something in science that does talk about that, and more and more science is coming out about that. It’s great to have momentum and good atmosphere, and it helps you get all pumped up.”
DeChambeau’s appearance as a co-leader will put further emphasis on his golfing, uh, eccentricities — notice we didn’t say “outright insanity” — and perhaps familiarize the mainstream sports fan with one man’s quest to quantify every element of the game. It will bring in the discussions of geometry and physics that surface every time he’s in contention because he has an unprecedented approach to his sport, beginning with the clubs in his bag, which have shafts of identical lengths. As part of his preparation for this tournament, he spent one 14-hour practice session on a gear machine, trying to figure out how he could improve his equipment.
“After careful observation and some really deep, deep thinking …” DeChambeau said, before devolving into the indecipherable.
At least come Friday, that can be contrasted with Koepka, who would rather down a protein shake and bench press a few hundred pounds than decipher a slide rule. He is an NFL safety playing the role of a golfer, but discussing him as a physical specimen should almost be trite by now.
What we should focus on, given Koepka’s past 20 months, is what he has accomplished. He missed the 2018 Masters with a wrist injury, so between the last time he teed it up at Augusta and Thursday, he was both a changed person and a changed player, winner of the 2017 and ’18 U.S. Opens and the 2018 PGA Championship.
“I enjoy the big stage,” Koepka said. “I enjoy major championships. That’s what you’re remembered by.”
Mickelson, at 48, will be remembered whether he ever contends here again. While the tournament started to sizzle Thursday, he was making back-to-back bogeys at 10 and 11 that dropped him back to even par. At 5:45 p.m., the leaderboard was left to others, more crowded than Best Buy on Black Friday. That was when Englishman Ian Poulter rolled in a short birdie putt at the par-5 15th to get to 3 under. As his name moved up, he had to elbow others out to make room. He joined, in the lead at that moment, eight others: Justin Harding, Adam Scott, Jon Rahm, Kevin Kisner, Kiradech Aphibarnrat, Dustin Johnson, DeChambeau and Koepka.
The field, as a whole, looked as if it had anxiety about gaining separation. The lead in the clubhouse was just 69. But because the course took on so much rain earlier in the week, at least one low number lurked.
“I thought there were some 66s out there,” Mickelson said. “Look, the greens are softer than they’ve ever been, and they’re not as fast as they normally are. So today was a day to take advantage of it.”
Which Mickelson did by birdieing all four par 5s and then nearly acing the par-3 16th. Koepka’s charge started at the devilish 12th, where he rolled in a putt from off the back fringe, before he just overpowered the par-5 13th, drained a nice putt at 14, then lofted a goose-down-pillow of a pitch from over the 15th green to within tap-in range, another birdie. His record at Augusta is undistinguished — no top-10 finishes in three appearances. But his record in recent majors is approaching astonishing.
“Just when I arrive there, I just get a good feeling,” Koepka said. “I don’t know how to explain it.”
If he is to win here, Koepka may have to explain how he fended off a leaderboard that included Woods. It’s worth noting that three of Woods’s four green jackets – those won in 1997, 2001 and ’02 – came when he opened the tournament with precisely the number he signed for Thursday: 70. (His last Masters title, in 2005, began with a surprising 74.) The most important development: He didn’t lose the Masters in the first round.
“I felt like I played well,” Woods said. “I did all the things I needed to do today to post a good number – drove it well, hit some good iron shots, speed was good on the greens.”
Yet even with all that, Woods missed three very makeable putts: for par at 5, for birdie at 6 and for birdie at 8. Those left him headed to the putting green after his round, trying to sort himself out.
Koepka and DeChambeau, the leaders, had no such issues. One might prefer “Men’s Health,” the other “Popular Mechanics.” They have different approaches, different achievements, different lives. But on Thursday night, they shared the top spot on the Masters leaderboard, knocking away Woods and welcoming in Mickelson as three distinctly delicious storylines that set up what looks to be a can’t-look-away Masters.