The Masters: Graeme McDowell and the giants are left in the shade
As Rory McIlroy bathed in the adulation of his stunning seven-under par opening round of 65 at Augusta National, his fellow Northern Ireland player Graeme McDowell was struggling in the afternoon sunshine.
McDowell, the US Open champion at the Pebble Beach last June, had sounded confident enough in the build up to this, the 75th Masters.
But on this course and in this tournament especially, you just never know. By the end of the afternoon, McDowell, having shot 74, was way back in the pack at +2, a mammoth nine shots behind his compatriot. That’s the way this game goes.
As someone once said, ‘King Rooster one day, feather duster the next’.
McDowell started on a bright, sunny Augusta morning in which there was no discernible breeze with a series of four straight pars.
He bogeyed the 5th to go one over but immediately got it back with a birdie two at the sixth.
Another birdie on nine put him at -1, out in 35 and a decent enough start, even if it wasn’t on the same planet as McIlroy’s pyrotechnics.
But the talk of the day was that it became so much harder on the back nine. South African player Retief Goosen, who reached the turn at -5 before slumping and finishing on -2, said: “The front nine definitely played a lot easier today than the back” he said.
“They set it up on the front nine for a lot of good scoring. But it was much harder coming home.”
McDowell dropped a shot on the long, par 5 13th to go out to +2. And he was clearly in preservation mode for the remainder of the round.
Someone who could have told him to hang on in there was one of his playing partners, Tiger Woods, a man who knows better than most the wiles and vagaries of this particular course.
Truth to tell, neither McDowell nor Woods ever looked like setting Augusta on fire. Some days are just like that.
Woods was subdued, playing conservatively but for the most part well short of his dynamic, dazzling best before finishing at one under par, with a 71.
Somehow, the struggles both men experienced and their inability on the day to break the spell and launch a serious chase of McIlroy seemed like a heavy cloud, despite the cloudless day.
Woods began with five straight pars before birdying the par three sixth. He held that to the turn, out in 35, before surrendering it at the 11th, the notorious Amen Corner, but got it back on the 13th with another birdie.
A second successive birdie put him at -1; reward for his steady if unspectacular first round play.
In many ways, it was a curate’s egg of an opening day, and not just because men like Woods and McDowell struggled.
Phil Mickelson, hugely popular in these parts, started in similar fashion to Woods and the Northern Irishman.
Indeed, Mickelson fired seven regulation pars in his first seven holes, very subdued stuff by his normally energised standards. Others, too, could not break the mould in the style of McIlroy.
For sure, the arising wind had something to do with that, especially on the always tricky back nine of this famous course. But there seemed almost a torpor about most of the proceedings on the first day, as if the giants had not yet truly awoken and focused on their task.
Trouble was for all of them, McIlroy’s bolter of a start.
For if the Northern Ireland star can repeat the dose today in the second round, then an awful lot of good players are going to start wondering whether the kid is catchable. The way it was all panning out, it looked like a superb chance for McIlroy on day two.
As for McDowell, he put it down to one of those days.
“It was a frustrating day because I played quite decently” he said. “But I three-putted holes 10, 13, 14 and 15 and you just can’t do that here at Augusta.
“You have got to stay in control of the greens. But I kind of lost my speed a little bit.
“I just didn’t putt very well on the back nine.”
Enough to worry him for the rest of the tournament? McDowell didn’t think so.
“It was just a speed thing. The greens were quite slow early on but they seemed to get a little faster on the back 9.
“My ball striking was quite solid; I hit some decent looking irons. I just hung in there most of the day.”