… and here’s Ewan on Cameron Smith’s wonderful, if slightly eccentric, 68.
The 2020 champ Dustin Johnson cards 69
Par for Dustin Johnson at the last. It’s no mean feat, either, having pulled his second deep into the gallery on the left. He pitches down from the bank to kick-in distance, a delicate touch that ensures he signs for a 69. Par and a one-over 73 for the Open champion Collin Morikawa.
-5: Im (F) -4: Smith (F) -3: Willett (F), Niemann (F), D Johnson (F)
Jordan Spieth hits a glorious tee shot at 16 to four feet … then pulls the birdie putt. He’ll not be winning this year’s Masters while so erratic on the greens. He remains at +1. See also: Rory McIlroy, who suffers his second three putt in three holes, this time at 16, and he’s down to +1 as well.
Dustin Johnson’s second into 17 topples off the back of the green. Only just, but he then severely underhits his putt from the fringe, and it stops six feet short. The ticklish downhill putt that remains is always heading right. Not hit convincingly at all, and that’s the big man’s first bogey of the day.
-5: Im (F) -4: Smith (F) -3: Willett (F), Niemann (F), Scheffler (F), D Johnson (17) -2: Kokrak (F), Conners (F), Zalatoris (16), Cantlay (16)
The reigning FedEx Cup champion Patrick Cantlay is mounting a late charge. Three birdies in four holes – at 13, 15 and now 16 – have whistled him up the standings to -2, just three off Im’s lead. Cantlay was one of the players who took the lead during that breathless denouement to the 2019 Masters, only to give it up pretty much the moment he had it. He’s more battle-hardened now, and surely won’t be too far away again come Sunday.
The pre-tournament favourite Jon Rahm finds greenside sand at 16, and can’t get up and down to save his par. The splash out was fine; the short putt, tentatively hit and always turning away at the last, was not. He’s +2 again. Moving the other way, Jordan Spieth, who only just cleared the water with his second at 15, a hybrid possibly pushing his luck. He gets up and down to rise back to +1.
McIlroy, having pushed his tee shot at 14 into the trees down the right, finds the dancefloor with his second anyway. Much good it does him. An agricultural three putt drops him back to level par. His tee shot at 15 doesn’t look ideal either, sent down the left. He may be forced into laying up from there.
A five-under 67 for Sungjae Im!
Sungjae Im sends his second at 18 into the sand on the right. He’s left with a tricky up and down, and doesn’t catch his bunker shot too cleanly, but the ball, travelling at some speed, hits the flag, nearly drops, and stops inches from the hole. He taps in for a wonderful 67 … and as things stand he’s still in the lead on his own, because Dustin Johnson races his birdie putt on 16 past the hole. He remains one off.
-5: Im (F) -4: Smith (F), D Johnson (16)
It’s going to be a bit of a race against time to get this first round completed. There’s roughly an hour of daylight left. Everyone should make it … but professional golfers are gonna play professional golf.
DJ smoothly whips his tee shot at 16 pin high to 12 feet. He’ll have an uphill look at birdie and a share of the lead. Back on 15, the chance of a bounceback birdie for Will Zalatoris slides by. He remains at -2.
A correction regarding Lee Westwood. Turns out he didn’t find his tee shot in a small clearing in the trees, allowing him to thrash out towards the front of the green. In fact, he’d found his ball under a bush, and could only punch forward to that less obnoxious position. So he finished with a bogey rather than par, and signed for a level-par 72.
Bogey for Will Zalatoris on 14, the result of finding trees down the right with his drive. Any old excuse to update the old leader board.
-5: Im (17) -4: Smith (F), D Johnson (15) -3: Willett (F), Niemann (F), Scheffler (F) -2: Kokrak (F), Conners (F), Zalatoris (14)
Brooks Koepka is going the other way, though. He dumps his second carelessly into the creek, then doesn’t get anywhere near to the flag with a heavy handed wedge. Two putts and that’s three bogeys in a row. The four-time major champ is +1. Par for his partner Rory McIlroy, meanwhile; he remains at -1. Birdie for Collin Morikawa up on 15, and he’s back to level par. And it’s an easy two-putt par on 17 for Sungjae Im, who is closing in on a 67.
Harold Varner III’s hot streak continues! His tee shot at 16 isn’t particularly great, pulled well left of the flag. He’s left with a 30-foot uphill rake for birdie … but in it goes, never looking like it was going to miss! That’s four shots picked up in four holes, and all of a sudden he’s in the top ten! He’s -1.
Jon Rahm, having found Rae’s Creek with his drive on 13, dropping back to +2, repairs the damage with a glorious iron from 134 yards to four feet on 14. From the centre of the fairway, he landed it pin high, using the slope of the green to swing the ball left and towards the cup. He makes no mistake with the putt and is back to +1.
Im leaves his birdie putt on 16 well short. But the 24-year-old South Korean holds his nerve to roll in the saver. He remains one in the lead at -5 … then smashes his drive at 17 straight down the middle.
Lee Westwood escapes 18 with a par, having sliced deep into the trees down the right. With a gap to work with, he sent his second over the trees skirting the side of 10, and landed his ball short of the green, the best he could do from where he was. He then screeched a wedge to kick-in distance, and he signs for a one-under 71. His dream of becoming the oldest Masters champion of all time yet to be extinguished. Meanwhile on 13, Jordan Spieth, who has been struggling today, finds Rae’s Creek with his second, but like Morikawa before him, gets up and down to salvage par. He’s +2, but he’s not playing with too much confidence, and a sixth top-ten finish in nine starts looks unlikely right now.
Birdie putts for DJ and Morikawa on 14. Johnson’s is always staying up on the high side; Morikawa’s is always dying off to the left. A shame after a couple of lovely second shots, Morikawa’s in particular a work of art from the trees on the right: unable to get too much spin on the ball, he used the tilt at the back of the green to bring it back towards the hole. A successful exercise in distance control.
Im had to wait more than ten minutes on the 16th tee. That’s knocked him out of his rhythm a bit, though everything in context: he finds the heart of the green, but will face a long putt for his birdie.
A three-putt bogey for Brooks Koepka on 11. He slips back to -1. Meanwhile up on 13, Dustin Johnson (-4) and Collin Morikawa (+1) take turns to get out of Dodge with pars, the former having clumsily bundled his third over the back, the latter having found Rae’s Creek from the centre of the fairway. And finally – and most importantly – Sunjae Im lays up at 15, then wedges to 15 feet before converting for a birdie that gives him sole ownership of the lead! The 2020 joint runner-up is coming on strong!
-5: Im (15) -4: Smith (F), D Johnson (13) -3: Willett (F), Niemann (F), Scheffler (F), Zalatoris (12)
Perhaps, finally, something is happening for Rory McIlroy! Having saved par with a 20-footer on 10, he makes birdie with a 30-footer on 11. The patrons roar their approval. He moves into red figures again. Meanwhile up on 18, a disappointing final bogey for Bob MacIntyre, who shoves his second into the sand on the right from the middle of the fairway, and can’t get up and down. A one-over 73.
Harold Varner III sends a lovely second into 14, using the camber to the left of the green to gather his ball towards the cup. He’s left with a ten-footer for birdie, and he’s not missing it. In short order, he’s hauled himself back to level par! Meanwhile on 12, Viktor Hovland, coming off the back of a pond-drenched double bogey at 11, nearly aces 12. His tee shot pitches a couple of feet past the hole but stubbornly refuses to spin back more than 12 inches. So close to the first hole in one on 12 since Curtis Strange aced in 1988! He’s level par as well.
Last year’s runner-up Will Zalatoris sends his tee shot into the heart of 12. He’s got a putt for a share of the lead … but leaves it a couple of feet short, then nearly misses the par tiddler, his stroke not exactly the smoothest work of art. Nevertheless, he remains at -3. Meanwhile it’s back to back birdies for Lee Westwood, the latest at 16, and the two-time runner-up moves into red figures at -1.
Harold Varner III is this close to making albatross from the pine straw to the right of 13. For a second, it looks as though he’s whipping his iron into the hole from 227 yards, but the ball stops a couple of feet from the cup. Just an eagle. Just an eagle! For the record, only one player has ever made albatross on 13 at the Masters: Jeff Maggert in 1994. The 31-year-old North Carolinian, something of a late bloomer who tied for sixth at the Players, is making his first appearance here. That would have been some way to introduce himself. He’s +1.
From the 12th tee box, the out-of-position Rahm, nominally playing 11, wedges wonderfully to six feet. But he then misses the short par putt. A four-letter word pings around this famous part of the course. It’s not “amen”. That’s a clumsy bogey, though not much more than his on-safari second shot deserved. The pre-tourney favourite slips to +1.
Rory McIlroy has missed some short ones today … but on 10 he rattles in a 20-footer, having done well to get that close from the bunker high on the right. That’s a par that will feel like a birdie, and he remains at level par. Meanwhile on 11, Will Zalatoris rolls in a long one for a rare birdie on a very difficult hole, while up on 12, Collin Morikawa, having done very little so far, makes a birdie that hauls him back to +1. Time for the reigning Open champion to get forensic with his irons on the two upcoming par fives.
Eagle for Sungjae Im on the par-five 13th! What a response to those back-to-back bogeys at 10 and 11! He draws a stunning hybrid around the corner from 220 yards to 15 feet, then guides in the right-to-left trickler, and he’s got a share of the lead again! Meanwhile on 11, Jon Rahm (level par) sends a wild second so far right it nearly hits the group ahead on the 12th tee! That’s either a mud ball, or he’s decided that knocking Dustin Johnson spark out would vastly improve his chances of winning.
-4: Smith (F), Im (13), D Johnson (11)
The 2019 low amateur Viktor Hovland tied for 21st as a pro last year. The 24-year-old Norwegian announces his intention to do something even better this time round, cracking his second into 10 to eight feet from the best part of 200 yards. Folk have been missing this green left and right, short and long, so that’s not nothing. In goes the birdie putt, and he’s into red figures.
Yep, that birdie at 8 looks to have lit a fire under Koepka. He knocks his approach at 9 from 122 yards to four feet, and that’s back to back birdies. All of a sudden he’s two off the lead at -2. He’s going round with Rory, who has missed a fair few makeable putts on the front nine, and hits the turn in a slightly dispiriting, but hardly fatal, 36 strokes. Also turning in level par: the pre-tournament favourite Jon Rahm, whose birdie at 9 repaired the damage of bogey at 6. With the possible exception of Dustin Johnson, none of the later starters are currently threatening to run amok. Give it time, though.
The defending champion Hideki Matsuyama went round in 72. Not ideal, but birdies at 13 and 15 have made a poor round respectable, and his dream of becoming the first man to retain the Masters since Tiger in 2002 remains a live prospect. Meanwhile speaking of the champion set, this hasn’t really been Sandy Lyle’s day, the 1988 winner over the back of 18 in two, +11 for his round. But the cream always rises eventually, and he bumps a left-to-right chip into the cup from 40 feet! A birdie to finish, he’ll sign for 82 … and he’ll always have that bunker shot.
Brooks Koepka has come close a couple of times, most notably finishing one shot behind Tiger in 2019. Injuries haven’t been his friend in the interim, and he’s come into this week slightly under the radar for a four-time major champion. He started out with seven straight pars, but having blootered his second at the par-five 8th through the green, then chipped back up to three feet, he’s made it into red figures for the first time today. This is exactly where Scottie Scheffler’s round took off; Koepka would sign on the dotted line to follow further in his footsteps right now.
World No1 Scottie Scheffler cards 69
Dustin Johnson continues to move on up! His second at 10 stops on the fringe at the front. Out comes the putter. He steers in a right-to-left swinger from 18 feet and that’s a third birdie in four holes … the only failure to make par during that short run coming at the relatively easy par-five 8th, which you’d expect the big man to birdie more often than not. Meanwhile up on 18, Scottie Scheffler becomes the latest of the leading bunch to come a cropper at 18, sending his second into Greg Norman Country and failing to get up and down from Patronsville. Another bogey for Im, too, at 11, and it’s all change at the top!
-4: Smith (F), D Johnson (10) -3: Willett (F), Niemann (F), Scheffler (F) -2: Kokrak(F), Conners (13), Im (11), Zalatoris (9)
Tiger talks to Sky Sports. “I’m proud of my whole team, we worked so hard. People have no idea how hard we worked each and every day. Once I got out of the bed after those three months, there have been no days off. That led me to this opportunity, and here we are. I’m only three back. We’ve got a long way to go, but it’s nice to get off to a positive start. Lots of treatment, lots of hopping in ice baths. Shivering and suffering! It’s awful, but it allows me to recover!”
A second birdie in three holes for Dustin Johnson, who has been rediscovering form of late. He swishes his approach into 9 pin high to six feet, and makes no mistake with the gentle right-to-left slider. All of a sudden, the 2020 champion is one off the lead and looking extremely dangerous. Given the reduced circumstances in which he won his green jacket two Novembers ago, few would begrudge him a repeat success, only this time with the sun beating down and patrons cheering him on. He’s -3.