There has been so much speculation ahead of the 2018 Masters as to just where this year’s version sits in terms of anticipation – many suggesting, because of the numerous story-lines involved, that it is perhaps the most anticipated ever.
The events of day one have suggested that hype was not overdone with not only one of Augusta National’s now favourite sons (Jordan Spieth) producing brilliance to lead but the perhaps feel good story of the week to date, Tony Finau, rising like a phoenix from the ashes of disappointment to lead until very late in the day.
Finau’s excruciating (just to watch) dislocated ankle during the Par 3 contest on Wednesday appeared to have ruined the chances of a Masters debut for the tall 28 year old American but after overnight treatment, elevating his ankle all night and an MRI this morning he was cleared to play around 7.00am and an hour later he was at the course to test the ankle and prepare for his afternoon round.
That he had a few hours to warm up and assess his capabilities of playing perhaps worked in his favour but so too did a round of golf that began with perhaps an unsettling bogey given the circumstances but evolved into a a brilliant debut further emphasising the roller coaster golf can offer.
From the despair of being forced to potentially sit out a Masters debut to taking the lead when finishing a round is stuff that dreams are made of and, after the nightmares of 24 hours earlier, Finau could not hide his excitement.
“Yeah, it’s been pretty crazy. To be in this position I’m at now; when I woke up this morning, nothing short of a miracle if you ask me. I could barely put any pressure on it. I could barely walk. But obviously, after the MRI we had, you know, there was no real damage. So at that point, at about 8:00 this morning, I knew I was going to play.
“From that time till I teed off was just about getting together with my doc and just having him do some tissue work and just make sure I was good to go.
“I went to the range quite a bit earlier than I would have, just to see how I was going to feel and hit some shots.
“But the emotions have been pretty crazy. I looked forward to this week for a really long time, and to see the possibility of that slipping away; you know, I had the confidence that I would come back, but I wanted to play now and I want to play this week.
“Waiting for another opportunity to play my first Masters, or whenever that was, whether it was next year or another time, was going to be hard for me to swallow.”
Finau finished about an hour ahead of the eventual first round leader Spieth and would eventually lose his lead to the the 2015 champion but it was a round he will not forget for so many reasons.
“I don’t know if I could sum it up in one word. But, you know, to me, it’s nothing short of a miracle sitting here right now, just because, you know, when it happened, I felt like there probably could be something seriously wrong. And after the X‑ray, there wasn’t and after the MRI, there wasn’t.
“To me, it’s a miracle; my foot was out of place 24 hours ago, and I sit here in second place at the Masters possibly after round one. It’s nothing short of a miracle for me. Just blessed.”
Spieth birdied holes 2 and 4 and then dropped shots at 5 and 6 and as he reached the 8th tee he was at even par. Most scoring opportunites at Augusta National come on the back nine but he needed to build momentum quickly and it came in the form of an eagle at the 8th hole from 14 feet.
While his run of five consecutive birdies from the 13th swept him into a then three shot lead it may well have been the great par saves he made at the 7th, 11th and 12th that would establish the base for his late onslaught.
A bogey after the last put a dampener of sorts on the round but it proved to be a good bogey as after finding the trees he was still facing 250 yards for his 3rd. That he saved bogey from the left of the green is further evidence if indeed it is needed that Spieth is firing on all cylinders.
“You know, I feel like ‑‑ and I talk about this almost every interview I do, is we build plans for the year to peak at certain times,” said Spieth. “And I believe that not just here at Augusta, but the major championships, going back a number of years, I’ve played really well, and I think that has to do with the work of our team.
“We’ve got a great plan, and then gearing up myself and getting psyched for them and the right amount of kind of confidence and composure that it takes.
“Out here, this golf course specifically, brings out a lot of feel in my game, and I think that’s advantageous. I don’t do well in domes or driving range shots, and you don’t have many of those out here.”
He acknowledged that the grinding today was just as important as the brilliance.
“If I look back on my highlights for the day, I’d say I had three of them. Two of them were bogeys and one was an eagle. My bogey save that I made on No. 7 was a fantastic putt that kept, you know ‑‑ I saw a putt go in. It was a very difficult putt, and I could have dropped to over par, and it led to, you know, stepping on 8 tee feeling like, okay, regrouped, let’s grab three coming in.”
Spieth leads by two over Finau and Kuchar, Kuchar perhaps one of the dark horses this week. Kuchar has often played well at Augusta National and has had a good season already in 2018 and so some of the odds about his chances ahead of the event appeared very appealing.
The large group at 3 under and three from Spieth’s lead includes Henrik Stenson and Rory McIlroy, McIlroy making his second best start in the event and Stenson also doing considerably better then in previous years.
Of the Australians Marc Leishman well with his round of 70 to be just four from the lead although a double bogey at the par 5 15th will hurt given he was then tied for the lead.
Leishman played with Tiger Woods and given the distractions of that pairing he did well.
Cameron Smith is playing his second Masters and produced his best round by two shots to be at 71, while Jason Day and Adam Scott had 75’s.
Twenty players are under par and the cut appears as if it will fall around the 3 or 4 over mark tomorrow.