Turn-back-the-clock day at Augusta National
AUGUSTA, Ga. – What year is it anyway?
Fifty-year-old Fred Couples leads the Masters. Sixty-year-old Tom Watson is one stroke behind. A pair of 52-year-olds, Sandy Lyle and Bernhard Langer, also broke par Thursday.
They turned the opening round at Augusta National into old-timers day.
“How about that?” marveled Tiger Woods, who garnered most of the attention coming back from a five-month layoff and a humiliating sex scandal. “Winning breeds winning, winning breeds a lot of confidence. Whether you win on the regular tour, mini-tour, senior tour, it doesn’t matter.”
Couples and Watson still know a thing or two about winning, even though they no longer play regularly on the PGA Tour.
Wearing tennis shoes and no socks, Couples arrived at Augusta coming off three straight wins on the Champions Tour, and he showed he can still keep up with those young whippersnappers, too. He posted the best score of his Masters career, a 6-under 66, to become the tournament’s oldest outright leader after the first round.
“Shocking,” Couples said.
Not really. Like all past champions, he knows his way around this place – every little hump in the green, every little spot you just can’t afford to be. That sort of inside knowledge is strengthened by the unique nature of the Masters, the only major played at the same course every year.
“I know the course very well. I know where to miss shots,” said Couples, who won the Masters in 1992 in the midst of making the cut in 23 straight appearances, matching the tournament record. “When I play well, I should shoot in the 60s here.”
Watson matched his best Masters round ever, a 67 that showed his stirring run in last year’s British Open was no fluke. Then again, he had every reason to be confident after winning a Champions Tour event and finishing sixth at Dubai against a strong field from the regular European tour.
Also, the guy on the bag provided plenty of inspiration. Watson’s son, Michael, served as his caddie.
“That was a big treat for me to have him out there,” the father said. “I wanted to show him that I could play Augusta. He said, ‘Dad, you can still do this.”‘
Watson hasn’t given up on becoming golf’s oldest major champion. He had a shot to win the British Open last summer at age 59, but missed a par putt on the 72nd hole and lost to Stewart Cink in a playoff.
Shortly after sunrise, Watson went out to watch old friends Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer hit the ceremonial tee shots. Then, it was time to play for real.
“It’s a long shot for somebody of our age, honestly, to do it,” Watson said. “But still, they can do it.”
Lyle (69) and Langer (71) are right in the thick of things, as well. The Scotsman put up his lowest Masters score since 1992, while the German was atop the leaderboard for much of the morning before finishing with two straight bogeys.
“It’s just a real blessing to be here in the first place,” said Langer, a two-time winner who missed the cut the last four years. “To be able to play that long and stay competitive, and then have the kind of day that I had today is pretty special.”
Asked if a 50-year-old could win the tournament, the German said it’s definitely possible.
“There’s a handful of us, like Fred Couples, Tom Watson and a handful of others,” Langer said. “I think I’ve proven over the years that I can play this game, and when I play well I can pretty much win anywhere.”
Lyle also felt good about his game, and said beforehand that he still believed he could be somewhat competitive at the Masters for another eight or nine years.
“I’ve been hitting the ball well,” he said coming off the 18th green. “And driving the ball nicely out of the fairway, better than I have in years and years, with plenty of power. And the direction is good. There’s a lot of good shots that I hit out there. That was about as good as I probably could have done.”
Couples failed to make the cut the last two years but we was on his game right from the start this time. He stuck a wedge to 4 feet at No. 1 for a birdie, and followed by making an 8-foot birdie at the par-5 second. His only stumble came at the fifth, where he couldn’t get up and down after an errant iron shot, but he was dead solid perfect on the back side.
He didn’t even have to work that hard for his birdies, four of which were from 10 feet and closer. The only long one was a 20-footer at the par-3 12th.
“To win Augusta at age 50 would be a pipe dream,” Couples said.
If nothing else, he might start a new fashion trend. Couples decided to wear tennis shoes and ditch his socks to help deal with persistent back problems.
It sure seems to be working.
“I wear nothing but tennis shoes,” he said. “I just don’t wear any socks with tennis shoes, and these shoes have been good so far.”
Not everyone in the over-50 crowd fared so well.
Fifty-two-year-old Ian Woosnam shot an 81, the second-worst round of the day. Craig Stadler (56) struggled to a 79, while Ben Crenshaw (58) put up a 77, Larry Mize (51) signed for a 76 and Mark O’Meara (53) managed a 75.
Still, all but Woosnam beat out a pair of golfers who are more recognizable to this generation: Jim Furyk and Henrik Stenson. They both struggled home at 80.
Yep, it was definitely old-timers day at Augusta.
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