AUGUSTA, Ga. — The Masters began Thursday, but it must begin again Friday, because absolutely nothing has been sorted out. This is normally a four-day process, one which takes the full 72 holes and often a couple more. So if you were hoping for clearly discernible story lines that would raise their hands in the first round and then stay true through the weekend, look elsewhere. What we have here is a jumble, in what might just be the best sense.
The characters, for the first 24 hours, include the defending champion, Adam Scott of Australia, who put his tee shot at the gnarly 12th into the water, yet shot 3-under-par 69. They include Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa, the 2012 Masters runner-up who also put his tee shot at 12 in the drink, and also steadied himself to shoot 69. They include the man who beat Oosthuizen, swing-for-the-fences lefty Bubba Watson, who didn’t make a bogey in his own 69.
But on the kind of pristine day that Augusta National Golf Club seems to be able to dial up on demand, they are all led by Bill Haas, whose personal history with the Masters is negligible — never a threat in four appearances, never a round in the 60s — but whose family history here is almost unmatched. His father, Jay, played in this tournament 22 times. His great-uncle, Bob Goalby, won the green jacket, back in 1968. Another uncle, Dillard Pruitt, turned up here too.
“It’s been a pretty special place in our family,” Bill Haas said.
So add Haas’s opening 68 on a deceptively difficult day to the family scrapbook. He began with a bogey, but didn’t waver, following with a birdie at the par-5 second. When he made his only other bogey of the day at 17, he followed with one final birdie that got him to 4 under, a shot clear of Scott, Oosthuizen and Watson.
But with the names on the leader board and an unusually tight field, what does this mean? For a night, it means Haas gets to sleep with the lead. He did that after the first round last week, in Houston. He finished tied for 37th.
“I know there’s tons of golf left,” Haas said.
And it could be golf played in some of the trickiest conditions Augusta has to offer. Thursday, some pins were all but inaccessible, and when the wind couldn’t make up its mind which way it wanted to blow, players looked at the trees, shrugged , pulled a club — and guessed.
Rory McIlroy, the two-time major winner from Northern Ireland, stood at even par through 12 holes, and grew uneasy about how that might stack up. So he checked out the leader boards — not the names, but the scores. The feedback: A birdie or two would put him right there. The greens were already fast, more like Sunday than Thursday. So change the expectations, and play what’s in front of you.
“It becomes more of a mental challenge than anything else, just playing to your spots,” McIlroy, who finished with a 1-under 71, said. “It almost becomes like chess, where you’re just making these moves.”
Which is, so early on, somewhat atypical. Over the last five Masters, the first round has produced an average of almost 14 rounds in the 60s, an average of 32 rounds under par. Over that span, the lead has always been at 67 or below. This Thursday: four rounds in the 60s, 19 rounds under par, and a lead of 68.
What might that mean for Friday, when the tournament starts again?
“It’s a challenge,” Irishman Graeme McDowell said. “It’s going to eat you up. It’s going to throw you bad breaks.”
Haas, of course, knows all that, because as far back as he can remember, he’s seen it first-hand. His father, a standout on the Champions Tour, is here this week, just as Bill used to accompany Jay for all those trips south from their native North Carolina. They have been, over the years, each other’s most ardent supporters. When Bill Haas won last year’s AT&T National at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, his first texts were to and from his father. They are joined professionally and personally by the family’s lifelong pursuit: golf.
“I never remember thinking, ‘Man, I wish I could hit this shot for my dad,’” Haas said. “But I do know now that there’s sometimes I’m like, ‘I wish my dad could hit this shot for me.’”
Jay Haas’s closest call in a major came right here, back in 1995, when he took the 36-hole lead with a second-round 64. But he had two critical turns, one of his making, one not — a penalty shot assessed when his ball moved on the third green after he addressed it, and a second shot into the water at the par-5 15th. Bill was 12. He was right there, and he remembers it all.
“Certainly could have won that week,” Bill Haas said. “It just didn’t happen.”
That could, of course, be Bill Haas’s fate this week, at this same place. But when the light fell low Thursday evening, and the final group finished up, it was still far too early to tell. Too many characters walked away from Augusta National after the first round, quite comfortable with their play and their position. So wake up Friday morning, and let the Masters begin.