His 7-under-par 65 for a four-shot lead came on a day when almost everybody played defense and nobody figured to do anything luminous, but then here came the 40-year-old Rose with a 10-hole stretch right out of a dream. From No. 8 to No. 17, he packed an eagle, seven birdies and two pars. When he finished, he almost matched the five-shot lead Craig Wood had after Thursday at the 1941 Masters (which Wood won eventually), a first-round lead never since equaled.
Rose settled for a par on No. 18 and remained four shots ahead of Hideki Matsuyama and Brian Harman, five ahead of Webb Simpson, Patrick Reed and youngsters Will Zalatoris and Christiaan Bezuidenhout. Yet even with that mere closing par, the 2013 U.S. Open champion had the best of his 59 Masters rounds and maybe the best from among his 71 major tournaments. They always say you can’t win the Masters on Thursday, but apparently you sure can try.
“I putted the ball beautifully and read the greens unbelievably well,” Rose told reporters in Augusta, Ga., after the first day of his 16th Masters across 18 years. “If you had said to me walking up the eighth hole, I’d have said I had no chance [at a 65], this course is playing a little too tricky for that. But it’s incredible. It’s a good reminder that you just never know what can happen out there, just to stick with it on the golf course.”
Long since hurrying to visibility at age 17 as an amateur in the 1998 British Open, Rose has been around long enough that he has held three other first-round Masters leads: in 2004 alone, in 2007 in a tie with Brett Wetterich and in 2008 in a tie with eventual champion Trevor Immelman. He dueled Sergio Garcia on the Sunday of the 2017 Masters before succumbing on the first hole of a playoff when Rose got stuck behind a magnolia, as can happen. Yet he has never led in the manner in which he led after the 65, after a stretch that in ways soared more than his 2013 U.S. Open title at Merion near Philadelphia.
He reached No. 8 at 2 over par, yearning in the muddle with the others. His year had been crummy. His ranking had slipped to No. 41. His previous event had been the Arnold Palmer in Orlando in March, and his back forced him to withdraw from that. Then he knocked it from 273 yards to nine feet to eagle, from 147 to four feet to birdie No. 9, from 191 to 26 feet to birdie No. 10, to six feet to birdie the par-3 No. 12, from 68 feet to three feet to birdie the par-5 No. 13, from the sand to six feet to birdie the par-5 No. 15, to 14 feet to birdie the par-3 No. 16, and from 148 yards to five feet to birdie the par-4 No. 17.
“I knew 2 over through seven is not the end of the world,” Rose said, “but also knew you’re going in the wrong direction. … So obviously the eagle, boom, straight back in there, and I guess almost just piggybacking with a birdie straightaway at No. 9, suddenly I turned in 1 under, and I could feel like I could actually leave the front nine as a job well done and kind of move on to the back nine and build a score.”
So he went from a job well done to a job spectacularly done, and as he went along, the words of his competitors served as meaningful background music telling of the hardness for all but one as the Masters reassembled five months after its rare autumn turn of November. Dustin Johnson, who won that event at 20 under par last year and shot 2-over 74 with a closing double bogey Thursday, told reporters in Augusta he found the course “playing definitely a lot tougher just because, when the greens are firm and fast here, the golf course plays difficult. Then you add the wind in today, it made it play really difficult.”
Reed, the 2018 Masters champion, told reporters: “Yeah, I’ll definitely accept a 2-under-par round,” which he did produce. Si Woo Kim, who shot a commendable 1-under 71, said, “It’s really different [from] five months ago.”
Jon Rahm, who shot 72, said: “It was a battle. … There was not one moment where you felt relaxed or where I felt relaxed out there.”
Bezuidenhout, the promising 26-year-old South African, said, “Like now there’s some places where you can’t even hold a green with a 7-iron in your hand where in November you’re going for flags with a 4-iron in your hand.”
Brooks Koepka, the four-time major winner who shot 74, said, “There’s not much grass on a couple of those greens.”
Harman said, “You get down around Amen Corner, and it’s so hard to read that wind. If you’ve got an in-between number, it’s easy to be uncommitted.”
And Simpson, the 2012 U.S. Open champion who always seems a reasonable choice to win, said: “Guys are going to shoot themselves out of the golf tournament on Day One. I knew it would be tough today. I didn’t know it would be — we’d be dealing with gusty winds like we were.”
It was tough, for all but one dude. “Yeah,” Rose said, “I didn’t feel like today was the day for a 65, if I’m honest.”
— Chuck Culpepper