AUGUSTA, GEORGIA – There may be no such thing as a typical day at The Masters.
Since it began in 1934, there have been great days, flat days, unforgettable days. Cold days, windy days, hot days. Difficult days, easy days and some Sunday bloody Sundays.
And there was Thursday.
It didn’t have it all but it came close. Remember the line from basketball coach Jim Valvano about three things you should do every day: laugh, cry and think?
This was one of those days.
The tears came early when the morning sun was creeping over the pine trees and wind was beginning to stir. That’s when Augusta National Chairman Billy Payne escorted Arnold Palmer’s widow, Kit, to the first tee to watch Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player hit the ceremonial tee shots while Palmer’s green jacket was laid over an empty white chair.
It was sad, somber and celebratory at the same time, a swirl of feelings just hours after the thunderstorms had cleared away.
A few hours later, it was impossible not to think about how Dustin Johnson must have felt to have withdrawn literally minutes before his 2:03 p.m. tee time. Like the rest of us, he probably has walked down thousands of staircases in his life but Wednesday he slipped in his socks and fell on his back and elbow while waiting for his little boy to get back from day care.
He spent the next 23 hours trying to be ready but it didn’t happen, his sore back still catching each time he’d come through a shot in his practice session. Moments before he was to be introduced, Johnson – No. 1 in the world, winner of his last three starts and the favorite to win here – left the practice green and rather than walk to the first tee, he veered right toward the clubhouse to withdraw.
“I want to play more than anything,” Johnson said, his back pain creeping into his voice.
As for laughter, it was mandatory on a day when the wind had the disposition of a 2-year-old having a tantrum. It was fierce and relentless, putting a biting chill into the spring air while increasing the guesswork on a course that asks for precise equations.
It was the rare Augusta day when Burberry scarves were in bloom and the gentle hum of the SubAir system sucking Wednesday’s rainfall out of the putting surfaces was occasionally drowned out by wind ripping through the trees.
After a few minutes outside, stepping inside was like diving to the bottom of a swimming pool on a hot day, like stepping out of one dimension into another.
Charley Hoffman had the wind beneath his wings Thursday, putting together a 7-under-par 65 to lead Masters rookie William McGirt by four strokes. Sixty-five at Augusta is brilliant any time. To do it Thursday when Fred Couples called 72 a great score was almost unimaginable.
“A little bit lucky,” Hoffman said.
McGirt, who could write a first-person book on golf’s mini-tours, spent most of his career wondering if he’d ever play in The Masters. He answered that question when he won the Memorial Tournament last year and felt comfortable enough Wednesday afternoon to chat with Memorial host and resident legend Jack Nicklaus about playing Augusta National.
“He just told me to play smart and play within myself, and he says, ‘If you can win at my place, you can win here,’ because there’s a lot of similarities in the two golf courses,” McGirt said.
When McGirt was introduced on the first tee for the first time Thursday, “I almost shed a tear,” he said. When his name was atop the big white leaderboards around the course, McGirt nudged his caddie to make sure he saw it.
“I wanted to make sure I enjoyed it, because, I mean, I don’t know if this is going to be a one-time thing or if I’m going to be back every year,” McGirt said.
Almost everyone else was battered and baffled by the breezes.
Jordan Spieth made 9 on the 15th hole, running his streak of consecutive Masters rounds with a quadruple bogey to two.
Thomas Pieters was three clear of the field early until the wind swallowed his 8-iron at the par-3 12th and it splashed down midway between the banks of Rae’s Creek.
Jason Day wondered if playing companion Brandt Snedeker was ever going to hit his tee shot at No. 12, waiting for a calm moment that never came.
“I didn’t even think he was going to pull the trigger,” Day said. “He turned around and said, ‘Does anyone else want to hit this shot?’ That’s the feeling.”
Here’s Adam Scott explaining his second shot at the 15th Thursday:
“I hit a 4-iron to layup and it caught a gust,” he said. “Kevin Kisner said it went 15 yards backwards at the peak of its flight. He was standing up ahead because he had already hit. And he was watching it and he watched it go back toward me.”
It was a day to embrace the conditions or surrender.
“Man, I love it,” Phil Mickelson said after opening with a 1-under-par 71.
Mickelson now believes in the gospel of bad-weather golf, which should come in handy with more heavy winds expected Friday before the weekend goes soft.
It helps when 41-foot eagle putts fall in, as happened for Mickelson at the second hole Thursday.
“Oh, that was cool,” Mickelson said.
It was that kind of Thursday at The Masters.
Like nothing else.