It was a hot and sweaty day at Augusta National, but that didn’t stop players from going low during the first round of the 2023 Masters Tournament. More than a dozen players shot 68 or better on Thursday, but nobody went lower than the 65s shot by Viktor Hovland, Jon Rahm, and Brooks Koepka.
Top of the board
By Will Knights
It’s not uncommon for mid-tier players to shoot the lights out and jump out to an 18-hole lead at a major before falling back over the weekend. That’s not the case this week at Augusta National. The big names came to play this week.
Viktor Hovland – Despite being a top-20 player in the world, Hovland entered the week to tempered expectations. He hasn’t finished better than T-21 in three previous trips to the Masters and his short game, which needs to be sharp around Augusta National, is a glaring weakness. The pressure on Hovland was surely ratcheted up when he was paired with Tiger Woods for the first two rounds. And yet, the 2019 low amateur shot a bogey-free round on Thursday. He made five birdies and an eagle and flashed a few brilliant up-and-downs on Nos. 10, 14, and 18.
One of the best ball strikers on Tour, there is no doubt that Hovland can contend if he keeps playing this well from tee-to-green. But if the weather kicks up this weekend and he starts missing greens, that short game is going to face a real test. Will it be able to hold up?
Jon Rahm – Twenty minutes into Jon Rahm’s round it seemed like his tournament hopes were dashed. The Spaniard hit the first green in regulation and then made double bogey. But the remainder of his round was exceptional. Highlighted by an eagle on No. 8, Rahm played the final 17 holes in nine under par to grab a share of the lead. The only green he missed all day was at No. 7, and he made birdie there anyway.
After the first-hole quibble, Rahm seemed unbeatable on Thursday. His driver was rock solid and the softer golf course allowed him not to worry about his ball running away on left-to-right sloping holes like Nos. 14 and 17. A three-time winner already this year, Rahm has to be the favorite as we head to sleep this evening.
Brooks Koepka – Well, well, well, look who’s back. After a 2022 major championship season that included two missed cuts and two poor finishes, Koepka appeared healthy and in top form on Thursday. His iron play was exceptional. He hit 15 greens in regulation and led the field in Strokes Gained: Approach.
Koepka’s Thursday performance wasn’t completely unexpected—after all, the Smash GC captain won LIV’s event last week in Orlando. but as I wrote on Tuesday, we had no context for what that actually meant. But if there is anyone in the world who can compete in a major without needing much time to round into shape, it’s Brooks Koepka.
Others worth noting – Cameron Young (67), Jason Day (67), Scottie Scheffler (68), Sam Burns (68), and Xander Schauffele (68) are among those in the top 10 through one day of play. The defending champion’s round is particularly notable. Scheffler blitzed the golf course from tee-to-green but couldn’t buy a putt. Back-to-back titles are very much in play.
He’s got that dog in him
By Andy Johnson
“They’re great players, but I’m a better player,” Sam Bennett said before the semifinals of last year’s U.S. Amateur. That’s big talk. But Bennett backed it up, beating Dylan Menente and Ben Carr to win the title. Bennett was outstanding in that tournament. He didn’t just win, he knocked out many of the top names in amateur golf on his path to the title. In any other year, Bennett would have been at the center of all the amateur buzz at this year’s Masters, but after Augusta decided to extend an invitation to Gordon Sargent, the reigning NCAA Champion, Bennett faded into the background. Sargent and his immense power quickly became one of the big storylines early in the week, leaving Bennett to battle with the likes of Aldrich Potgieter for oxygen. Given the attitude he displayed at last year’s Amateur, I imagine Bennett gained a wee bit of motivation while listening to the golf world anoint Sargent the Next Big Thing (I myself am guilty of this offense). In my mind, I see Bennett’s face on this meme:
With this potential chip on his shoulder, Bennett put together one of the best opening rounds we have seen from an amateur. The Aggie’s bogey-free 68 put him in a tie for 6th. The score is even more remarkable given that Bennett shot the lights out while playing alongside the world’s top ranked player and reigning Masters Champion Scottie Scheffler (who also shot 68). Now all the eyes that were on Sargent will be squarely on Sam Bennett. It will be interesting to see how he handles the spotlight. But if last year’s Amateur is any indication, we shouldn’t be surprised if Bennett is on this leaderboard for the long haul.
Yep, they can still reach the green in two
By Garrett Morrison
The reports of the 13th hole’s demise were greatly exaggerated.
For this year’s Masters, Augusta National built a new tee box on No. 13, extending the famous par 5 from 510 to 545 yards. Many of the pre-tournament reviews from players were critical (politely so, given the setting).
“I think the club took an amazing risk-reward hole and turned it into a three-shotter for the majority of the field,” said Tommy Fleetwood. On Thursday, Fleetwood went for the 13th green in two with a fairway wood.
“Most likely, I’ll be laying up all four days,” said Dustin Johnson. His drive on No. 13 traveled 320 yards, hugging the left tree line and leaving him 205 in. He didn’t lay up.
You know who else went for the green in two? Zach Johnson.
In round one, 31 out of 86 players laid up. Only 16 laid up from the fairway.
A couple of caveats here:
- Conditions were calm on Thursday
- The greens were relatively soft, giving players unusual stopping power even with long clubs.
No doubt we’ll see more layups on No. 13 if Augusta gets the expected rain and 10-15 mph winds this weekend. Still, today showed that the additional 35 yards of length didn’t ruin the hole’s strategic value.
64% of the field went for the green in two, and 36% of second shots held the green. Three players attempted to reach the green from the pine straw right of the fairway. Eight approaches landed in the tributary of Rae’s Creek.
Since the Masters doesn’t make detailed stats public, I can’t easily compare these numbers to last year’s. What I can tell you, however, is that watching the action on No. 13 wasn’t dull. Players hit long irons, hybrids, fairway woods—clubs that we haven’t seen very often on the hole in recent years.
On Sunday, for the first time in a long while, we may get to see a leader make a difficult decision in the 13th fairway. If the price of that pleasure is a little early-week grumbling from the pros, so be it.
Tiger Woods – Playing in just his second event of the year, the five-time Masters champion looked relatively healthy but was unable to gain any momentum en route to a first-round 74.
Bryson DeChambeau – An eagle on the par-5 15th saved Bryson from shooting a big number. He ultimately finished with a 74.
Corey Conners – The winner of last week’s Valero Texas Open, Conners surely entered the week with confidence. The Canadian has finished in the top 10 at the Masters, but shot 73 on Thursday.
Sahith Theegala – The Masters rookie played very solid golf for most of his round but made four bogeys from Nos. 7 to 11 and finished with a 73.
The Latest from the Fried Egg
Phil Mickelson’s Awkward Masters Comes to Life on the Course – During a weird and uncomfortable week, Phil Mickelson finds some life at Augusta National
Will’s Official Weekly Golf Ranking, Vol. 2023.14: Masters Edition – Ranking the entire Masters field the only way WOWgr knows how.
Future Changes We’d Like to See at Augusta National – The Masters venue has been altered numerous times over the years. Andy Johnson, Cameron Hurdus, Garrett Morrison, and guest Geoff Shackelford make their wish list of future changes they’d like to see made to the golf course.
How the Masters Works for Diehards and Dilettantes – The tournament that appeals to almost everyone is at a course that almost no one will ever play.
TFE Podcast: Masters Presser Reactions and Alternative History of Augusta National’s Design – In this midweek Masters episode, Garrett Morrison reacts to some of the Masters press conferences we’ve heard this week, including Augusta National Chairman Fred Ridley’s Wednesday presser. Garrett is then joined by golf historian Bob Crosby to talk about the evolution of Augusta National’s design, including some mistakes that were made along the way. Listen on iTunes and Spotify.
The Shotgun Start – First round recap, Phil’s return. Listen on iTunes or Spotify.
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Kevin Na shot an opening-nine 40 and withdrew from the Masters on Thursday. Time will tell whether the Iron Heads GC captain is required to hang around for a potential celebration behind the 18th green.
Will Zalatoris also withdrew from the Masters with a back injury. According to Will’s coach Josh Gregory, he woke up on Thursday with tightness and chose not to risk further injury (via Dan Rapaport).
Rory McIlroy and Max Homa both did a walk and talk with the broadcast team on Thursday.
It appeared as though Brooks Koepka’s caddie Ricky Elliot told Gary Woodland’s caddie what his player hit on No. 15 on Thursday, which could have been a rule breach. Ultimately it was decided that no advice was given or requested. You can judge for yourself.
Tyrrell Hatton is doing Tyrrell Hatton things.