Rose takes early lead at The Masters

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 11, 2008

Associated Press

AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — The Masters had a familiar feel Thursday, from the warmth of a spring garden to the pockets of cheers that celebrated spectacular shots, even to some of the names on the leaderboard.

Justin Rose was at the top after 18 holes, the third straight time he’s managed that.

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Tiger Woods couldn’t break 70 on the first day for the 12th straight year.

The four-time Masters champion failed to make a birdie at Augusta National for the first time since the opening round in 2003, although there was no reason to panic. He chipped in for eagle from 25 feet behind the 15th green to salvage an even-par 72, leaving him four shots behind Rose and co-leader Trevor Immelman.

Woods didn’t sound terribly worried.

‘‘I played a lot better than what my score indicates,’’ he said. ‘‘I kept myself in the tournament. I’m right there.’’

So is Rose, and that’s becoming a tradition like no other at the Masters — at least on Thursday.

The 27-year-old Englishman overcame a sluggish start with four straight birdies that carried him to a 68. The trick now is to figure out how to stay there over the next three days.

Rose led through 36 holes in 2004 until stumbling to an 81 in the third round. He was tied for the lead after 18 holes last year and stayed in the hunt all week until a late collapse on Sunday.

‘‘Eventually you’ve got to say, ’OK, it’s time to step up,’’’ Rose said. ‘‘But I’m not putting too much pressure on myself.’’

Pressure might come from the course.

Unlike last year, when Augusta was brisk and brittle and the scores were among the highest in history, a warm afternoon of sunshine and only a light breeze brought back some of the scoring — and sounds of cheering — on the fabled course.

‘‘I think the golf course is right where they want it,’’ Rose said. ‘‘They can take it whichever direction they would like. If they want to create some birdies, they can do that. And if they want to make par a good score, that could be done. It’s probably perfect right now.’’

Immelman played that way, keeping bogeys off his card in his best start at the Masters. Perhaps it was only a coincidence that Rose, Immelman and Ian Poulter made a weekend getaway to Augusta last month for practice.

Poulter was at 70 and drew the loudest cheer with his hole-in-one on the 16th hole.

Masters rookie Brian Bateman, Brandt Snedeker and Lee Westwood were at 69, which defending champion Zach Johnson, Jim Furyk and Stephen Ames among those in the group at 70.

There were a few surprises, such as 51-year-old Mark O’Meara, who celebrated the 10-year anniversary of his green jacket with a 71. And among the familiar faces were Phil Mickelson, the ’04 and ’06 champion, who opened with an amazing birdie and settled for a 71.

There also was a familiar sound — a few of those Augusta roars — even if Woods didn’t hear them.

‘‘The way the golf course plays now, you don’t really shoot low rounds here anymore,’’ Woods said. ‘‘You’ve just got to plod along. It’s playing more of a U.S. Open than it is a Masters. There was really one roar I heard all day, and that was Poulter’s eagle. But other than that, it was really quiet.’’

Woods must not have been listening closely to a few familiar sounds on a warm, spring afternoon in golf’s prettiest garden:

— Mickelson was 60 feet over the first green in a walkway, his ball on pine straw. Using a putter, the ball scooted up the slope and rattled the pin before falling, turning bogey or worse into a birdie.

‘‘It was at least a two-shot swing, possibly three,’’ Mickelson said.

— Johnson, hoping to prove last year was no fluke, could only shrug when his 45-foot birdie putt went up over a ridge and into the cup for a birdie on the fifth.

— Poulter used an 8-iron from 169 yards on the 16th, watching the ball funnel down the slope and into the cup for an ace.

‘‘That was a special moment,’’ he said. ‘‘The hairs on the back of my neck were standing up. It was great.’’

There was a big ovation again for Arnold Palmer, smacking his ceremonial tee shot so far that he never saw it land — but that was only because of soupy fog that caused a one-hour delay. More cheers followed Gary Player up the 18th fairway as the three-time Masters champion set a record by playing for the 51st time. He shot 83.

‘‘I heard some roars today,’’ Arron Oberholser said after a 71, despite playing with injuries that will keep him out for two months after this tournament is over. ‘‘But this is about as easy as it’s going to play for the week.’’

Rose was 2 over through four holes until making a slippery 6-foot birdie on the sixth, the first of his four straight birdies. He added two more on the 12th and 13th, and settled into pars the rest of the way to join some elite company — Palmer, Player, Jack Nicklaus and Lloyd Mangrum are the only other players to have a first-round lead at least three times at the Masters.

Now if the Englishman can only figure out how to finish.

‘‘I seem to throw the home run early,’’ Rose said. ‘‘I’ve gone out there today with a really relaxed frame of mind, and that’s obviously what I’ve got to recreate the rest of the week.’’

Woods will try to repeat some history himself. In the four years he has won the Masters, Woods has trailed by at least three shots after the first round — seven shots after 18 holes in 2005, his most recent title.

Even as red numbers for birdies were going up on the board, Woods had to settle for 12 pars. And just when he thought he had his first good look at birdie, his 4-iron into the par-5 13th hopped hard and went over the green into the worst stop. It showed, too. Woods gripped the head of his club and swung it in anger.

His pitch got halfway to the hole when it peeled off to the right and down the swale, leading to bogey. Then came a pulled tee shot into the trees on the 14th, leading to another bogey.

Standing behind the 15th green in two, though, his chip checked up a few feet from the hole and took one last turn into the cup.

‘‘I feel good about how I played all day,’’ Woods said. ‘‘I hit the ball really well. I hit a lot of good putts that just didn’t go in. That’s just the way it goes. I’ve got to stay patient out there, and hopefully it will turn.’’

Snedeker and Westwood both reached 4 under until dropping shots in twilight, the sun dipping quickly behind the Georgia pines because of the one-hour fog delay in the morning. Furyk bogeyed the last hole for a 70, and was curious what the rest of the week held for everyone.

‘‘It’s 8 o’clock, it still feels like it’s 70 degrees, there’s no wind, the greens were somewhat receptive,’’ Furyk said. ‘‘I think we had an opportunity to play today. And I don’t expect that to keep up.’’