- The Washington Times - Friday, April 7, 2006

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Golf’s stolid Fijian drove an opening-act sword in the new-look Augusta National’s aura of invincibility.

Dispelling any lingering concerns the longer, faster layout would confound the field, world No. 2 Vijay Singh coasted around the 7,445-yard, par-72 course in 67 strokes yesterday to claim the first-round lead at the 70th Masters.

“It wasn’t difficult for me to shoot 67; I mean, I left a lot of shots out there if you look at it that way,” said Singh, who leads oft-injured veteran Rocco Mediate by one stroke.

Masters rookie Arron Oberholser trails by a pair, while a quartet that includes multiple major winners Phil Mickelson and Retief Goosen sit three back.

“I think the conditions today favored us, not the holes they changed,” Singh added.

Three of the four holes that were significantly lengthened in the offseason (Nos. 1, 4 and 11) played downwind yesterday, with the only other significantly altered hole (No. 7) playing into a mere whisper of a breeze.

“I didn’t struggle with my game at all,” Singh said after matching the glorious spring day with his play.

The 43-year-old Singh, who boasts a green jacket (2000) and a set of Wanamaker Trophies (1998 and 2004 PGA Championships) among his 28 PGA Tour victories, hit 14 greens and carded five mostly ho-hum birdies. His nearest brush with bogey was a 5-foot par save on the fifth hole. Singh hardly left the sprinkler line as he sauntered around the property during a stress-free performance.

“You look back and say, ‘Well, I could have been three or four more under.’ But I made some good putts, so it kind of evens out,” Singh said. “This is probably one of the better rounds I’ve played here.”

In spite of the layout’s added length and the first round of hard, fast conditions the event has seen in five years, a large chunk of the field found the going similarly easy given the calm, warm conditions.

“I think the course setup was perfect today,” said Goosen, a two-time U.S. Open champion (2001 and 2004). “Tomorrow it might blow a gale, and we’ll all be moaning at things. But I don’t think anybody will be unhappy with the way the course played today.”

In all, 18 players finished under par on the day. That’s well above the event’s historical first-round average and the most since 21 players accomplished the feat in 2002. And the opening-round scoring average for the 90-man field was a respectable 74.944, also the lowest since 2002’s opener (74.124).

The result is a raft of proof that reports of Augusta National’s architectural demise were greatly exaggerated. The Greencoats undoubtedly added a little more starch to the test by tacking on 155 yards since last year’s event. But yesterday proved that if the weather offers up perfect scoring conditions, the world’s best players are still more than capable of taking advantage of Bobby Jones’ shrine in the pines.

But the tournament’s defending champion was conspicuously absent from the roster of red-number, first-round salvos. Four-time winner Tiger Woods opened with a relatively uninspiring 72, highlighted by an eagle at the par-4 14th followed by a double-bogey at the par-5 15th.

The 30-year-old Woods holed out from the fairway with an 8-iron from 163 yards on the 14th for his first career eagle on one of Augusta National’s par-4s to reach 1 under on the day. But he gave the gift right back after pulling his drive into the trees lining the left side of the 15th. Woods laid up to 100 yards on the 530-yard hole but was dismayed moments later to find his ball resting in the back of a deep fairway divot.

“Usually when you hit the ball in a divot you have some type of play, but I actually had no play because I was on the back side of the divot,” said Woods, who also three-putted on both the second and fourth holes en route to his level par start. “I thought I should be able to get some kind of 60[-degree wedge] on it and trap it and fly it to the hole, let it skip over the green somewhere, 20 or 30 yards over the green and try to get up and down. I hit it, and I fatted it.”

Woods flubbed the wedge right into the green-front pond, took his penalty stroke, wedged on in five and two-putted for the scorecard-galling double.

“I just didn’t get a whole lot out of it today,” said Woods, seeking the 11th major title of his career. “All in all, I thought I could have got under par today, but it just didn’t happen. … But I’m better [off] than I was last year. So I’m in good shape.”

Last year, Woods opened with a 74 before erupting in the middle 36 (66-65) to take command of the event. And with the course likely to grow harder, faster and more difficult if the rain holds out over the next two days, nobody doubts the comeback chances of the game’s premier player.

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