A benign Augusta allows low scores as Hovland, Rahm Koepka share lead -

A benign Augusta allows low scores as Hovland, Rahm Koepka share lead

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Jon Rahm of Spain on the Tournament Practice Area ahead the first round of the 2023 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club, Thursday, April 6, 2023.

From V Krishnaswamy in Augusta, US

Augusta: The Augusta National Golf Club seemed to have kept its sharp bite for the latter stages of the tournament as it threw up low scores on the first day of the 87th Masters. A benign course with soft greens meant three players shared the lead with 65 each and there were 42 scores of par or better.

There was a three-way tie at the top with Viktor Hovland rising to the occasion in Tiger Woods’ company and Jon Rahm showing he is a fighter to the core and Brookes Koepka once again emphasizing his focus at the Majors. They shot 65 each on the first day of the 87th Masters.

However, at Augusta the greens always become drier, faster and tougher as the week progresses. The weather is also expected to be rough over the next three days, as rains are expected in the second half of the second day.

There was a strong leader board with more than a few Major winners embellishing the scoreboard as former World No. 1 and 2015 PGA Championship winner Jason Day and the 2022 Open runner-up Cameron Young were tied fourth with 67 each.

The big names at 4-under included the defending champion Scottie Scheffler lead the bunch at 4-under alongside former Gary Woodland, the US Open winner, Shane Lowry, the 2019 Open winner, Adam Scott, the 2013 Masters champion, Sam Burns, Xander Schauffele and amateur Sam Bennett.

Two names lying way down the leaderboard were Rory McIlroy, who just could not get things going and finished even par 72, while Tiger Woods was 3-over by the seventh but almost had an eagle on eighth, where he got his first birdie. On the second nine he had two birdies on 15th and 16th, while he dropped shots on 11th and 18th for a 74 and tied 54th place. McIlroy had five birdies against three bogeys and a double bogey and was tied 37th.

Hovland, playing his fourth Masters and the top amateur in 2019, has been trending well since his win late last year at Tiger Wood’s event, where he successfully defended the Hero World Challenge. This year Hovland, who has been fine tuning his short game, was tied third at the PLAYERS,  behind Scottie Scheffler.

Hovland found his momentum with a 25-foot eagle on the second and then he kept climbing up with five birdies in eight holes between sixth and 13th. A couple of errors with bad tee shots, by his own admission, came on 14 and 15, but he did well to save par all the way to the finish for a clean card of 65.

Talking about the Tiger connection and his two wins at Wood’s event, the Hero World Challenge, Hovland said, Just happened to be the case. But obviously it’s really cool to just be around him. He’s been such a huge influence to the game of golf, and obviously watched him for hours growing up. And to get to play with him for the first time today was very special, and especially to play this round, as well.”

About his reaction when he learnt he was to play with Woods, Hovland went on, “When Shay (his caddie) told me on the practice area because I wasn’t on my phone checking it, and when he said we were paired with Tiger, my heart kind of went a little bit further up in the throat. I just thought, wow, this is going to be exciting. Heart rate started going up. After that, I calmed myself down and thought, this is going to be very exciting. You’ve just got to embrace it. You can’t be scared or anything like that. If you want to win this tournament, you can’t be scared about playing with Tiger. So you’ve just got to overcome things like that.”

Rahm, part of the current ‘Big Three’ alongside Scheffler and McIlroy, came back from a nightmarish start when he four-putted on the first. He then proceeded to claw his way back with birdies on next two holes and when he added another birdie on the seventh and an eagle on eighth, he was back in the mix at 3-under on the turn. He kept his foot on the pedal from 13th to 18th with four birdies in that stretch and closed at 65 two flights behind Hovland, Woods and Schauffele.

Rahm took the opening double bogey on his chin and fought. He said, “If you’re going to make a double or four-putt or anything, it might as well be the first hole, 71 holes to make it up. So, once I kind of accepted that there was nothing really to look into, I just got to work and I had 17 holes to make up.”

Then he quoted Seve Ballesteros, his hero. Rahm said, “Then I remembered Seve’s quote, I think it was here at the Masters, right, when he 4-putted. I just kept thinking to myself, “Well, I miss, I miss, I miss, I make.” Move on to the next. I carried a little bit of that negative energy into the tee shot on 2, hit it about ten yards further than I usually do and moved on with my day.”

And he sure did move after that including his second shot on Par-5 eighth close enough for an eagle to move into top gear for the second nine.

A little over an hour later, Koepka fresh from a win on the Saudi backed LIV Tour but over 54 holes, showed that he is still excited by the Majors, of which he has won four. His last Major, however, was  the 2019 PGA Championships, after which he has been through serious injury problems that made bending his knee very difficult. Now looking healthy and smiling, Koepka birdied four times on his first nine and then added a fifth on the 12th before dropping a bogey on the newly-redesigned Par-5 13th. He said he pulled the drive, but quickly made up with birdies on 15th and 17th and closed with yet another for 65. McIlroy has pointed out that Koepka was a strong contender and despite them being on different sides of the PGA Tour v LIV battle, they played a practice round together.

While Hovland has been working his way up and Rahm has been dominant, Koepka has had a rough time with injuries. He said, “I think it was just the start. Got off to a good start. Anytime you’re 2-under through 3, it’s a good start. It felt good. Kind of just piggybacked off that momentum and was very happy the way I played. Drove the ball really nicely. Left it in some good spots. Even missed quite a few putts. I think I missed a short one on 6, 8, 9, 10, so they were all kind of inside ten feet. But it could have been really low but I’ll take it, 7’s pretty good.”

About the period of one year and more, when he had painful injuries,  Koepka added, “Anytime with something like that, you don’t see everything, right. A lot of it, it’s all injury-based. Any athlete, anybody that’s going through something where you can’t even bend your knee, I mean, I’ll spare everybody the details. It was pretty gruesome, right.”

Cameron Young, who was twice in Top-3 in the Majors in 2022, showed he is ready to win a Major, as he positioned himself in tied fourth place with a resurgent Jason Day, who in 2015 has risen to No. 1 in the world, but was then hit by injuries and dropped to way outside Top-100.

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