AUGUSTA, Ga. (Reuters) – Defending champion Tiger Woods tied his best-ever opening round at the Masters and was three shots behind clubhouse leader Paul Casey on Thursday before play was suspended at Augusta National Golf Club due to darkness.
Five-times Masters champion Woods, who had struggled for form in 2020, suddenly looked revived and in command on his familiar Augusta National stomping ground as he carded a four-under-par 68.
“It was good all around,” Woods said after his first bogey-free start in 23 Masters appearance. “I drove it well, hit my irons well and putted well. There’s really nothing, looking back on it, that I could have done a little bit better.”
A near three-hour delay due to lightning and rain forced players off the course 25 minutes after the first groups teed off and ended any hope of completing first-round action on Thursday given the decreased November daylight.
Woods, whose defence of his fifth Green Jacket was already put on hold for seven months because of the COVID-19 outbreak, began on the back nine three hours later than scheduled but seemed unbothered as he birdied the 13th and 15th holes.
He nearly aced the par-three 16th where he walked off the green with a familiar swagger after tapping in from two feet for birdie, delivered a modest fist pump after a birdie at the par-four first and closed with a string of pars.
Englishman Casey, who has one top-five finish in 13 Masters appearances and missed the cut last year, eagled the par-five second hole, his 11th, en route to a seven-under-par 65 that left him two shots clear of Webb Simpson and Xander Schauffele.
Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama, Englishman Lee Westwood, South African Louis Oosthuizen and 2018 Masters champion Patrick Reed were in the clubhouse a further shot back in a group with Woods.
“I did the right things when I needed to,” Casey said. “You rarely walk off this golf course going, it could have been two or three better, but it kind of felt that way. I don’t want to be greedy. I’m very, very happy with my 65.”
Tournament favourite Bryson DeChambeau, who overpowered Winged Foot with his driver in September’s U.S. Open to win his first major, began on the back nine and ran into trouble at the par-five 13th where he carded a double-bogey.
But he closed his round strongly with two consecutive birdies for an opening two-under-par 70.
“This golf course, as much as I’m trying to attack it, it can bite back,” said DeChambeau.
“I tried to take on some risk today. It didn’t work out as well as I thought it would have, but at the end of the day I’m proud of myself the way I handled myself and finished off.”
Among the notable late starters unable to complete their rounds were world number one Dustin Johnson, No. 3 Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy, who needs a win this week to complete the career Grand Slam of golf’s four majors.
Thomas began with three consecutive birdies and was five-under through 10 holes, Johnson was three under after nine and playing companion McIlroy was at even par.
Former Masters champion Jordan Spieth continued his recent poor form with a 74, hampered without a seven-iron for nearly 17 holes.
He took the club out of play on his second hole after consulting with an official, who on inspection decided it did not conform with regulations. Spieth had not used the club so there was no penalty.
The Masters, typically played in early April, is sending golfers off both the first and 10th holes over the first two rounds for the first time.
Despite this being a Masters like no other, without paying spectators due to coronavirus concerns, several hundred members crowded the first tee as Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player hit the ceremonial tee shots to start the tournament in near darkness.
Opening round play will resume on Friday at 7:30 a.m. ET (1230 GMT).
(Reporting by Andrew Both; Writing by Frank Pingue; Editing by Pritha Sarkar and Ed Osmond)