Hoffman leads early at Augusta

2015-04-09 19:36
Charley Hoffman (AFP)

Augusta - Unheralded Charley Hoffman has earned the early plaudits as the Masters got underway on Thursday, but most eyes were fixed on Rory McIlroy as he marched off in search of golfing history and Bubba Watson battling to defend the title.

First man out Hoffman, a 38-year-old American who ended a five-year PGA win drought last November, fired a five-under par 67 in perfect playing conditions at Augusta National to seize the early clubhouse lead.

"I'm just trying to put myself in position come Sunday," he said. "It's a nice place to be right now."

McIlroy, seeking to become the second-youngest player ever to complete the full set of Grand Slam titles, had a quiet start with five straight pars before dropping one at the sixth.

Meanhile Watson, aiming to join Jack Nicklaus as the only men to win the Masters three times in four years, got off to a confident start with birdies at the par-five second hole and the tough fifth.

He briefly was joint pace-setter before dropping one at the par-three sixth.

Among other early starters to impress were England's 2013 US Open champion Justin Rose, who reached the turn at three-under before adding another birdie at the 10th, and three-time former winner Phil Mickelson, who birdied the second and third holes before stumbling with bogeys at six and seven.

McIlroy was handed a rousing reception as he stepped onto a packed first tee to take his place in a grouping that also included Mickelson and Ryan Moore.

He missed a birdie putt at the first, but then struggled to save par at the par-five second after a poor drive. He dropped his first shot of the tournament at the sixth.

The world number one had been at pains in the buildup to the tournament to play down the pressures weighing down on his shoulders, saying that at just 25-years-old he had plenty of time left to win the Masters and complete the set.

But he does have a rocky past here, most notably in 2011 when he let slip a four-stroke lead entering the final round, and a win this week would be huge for him.

McIlroy set up his career Grand Slam opportunity by winning the last two majors of 2014 -- the British Open and the PGA Championship. He won his first major at the 2011 US Open and a first PGA title the year after that.

- Woods starts late -

If McIlroy and Watson were the star turns early on at Augusta National, the focus in the afternoon was set to fall firmly on four-time Masters champion Tiger Woods, returning to competitive play after a two-month timeout to try and get his game back together.

So far in the buildup this week, the signs have all been positive for him. Mentally and physically, Woods looks a different man to the one who was driven off the course in a golf cart after 11 first-round holes at the Farmers Insurance tournament in February.

Like McIlroy, the stakes were high for Woods. The last of his 14 major titles came nearly seven years ago and the last of his four Masters wins was 10 years ago.

However, the "patrons," as golf fans are called at Augusta National, had to bide their time to see Woods in action as he was not due off until the penultimate grouping of the day at 1748 GMT alongside Welsh Ryder Cup star Jamie Donaldson and in-form fellow American Jimmy Walker.

Late or early, the 39-year-old superstar is just glad to be back in action on a course where he has enjoyed the greatest moments of his career to date.

"There is no other tournament in the world like this, and to come back to a place that I've had so many great memories at and so many great times in my life, it's always special," he said.

There were other compelling storylines to look out for in one of the most hotly anticipated Masters tournaments in recent years.

Australian Adam Scott can make it two wins in three years, while a new wave of young American golfers, led by Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed, are firmly knocking at the door of major glory.

Australian Jason Day, Spanish shotmaker Sergio Garcia and American talent Rickie Fowler provide a fine anchor group last out at 19:59 (SA time), but the weather could be a factor by then.

Thunderstorms were forecast at some time in the late afternoon and worse is expected to come on Friday before a calmer and cooler weekend sets in.

Read more on:    pga tour  |  masters  |  golf

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