- The Washington Times - Friday, April 10, 2009

AUGUSTA, Ga. | Maybe Arnold Palmer should have kept playing after he hit the ceremonial first ball in the Masters. If ever a 79-year-old were going to shoot a number at Augusta National it was Thursday, when the tees were up, the wind was down, the pin placements were “generous” (Padraig Harrington talking) and the greens were “juicy” (as Angel Cabrera put it) - soft and receptive to iron shots.

In fact, the first round was such a joy ride that Harrington, who's trying to win his third straight major, said he felt “a little bit of urgency” when he was sitting at even par through seven holes. Normally, a 72 on opening day doesn't kill anyone's chances, but on this opening day there was a possibility it might. So Paddy got to work making birdies and finished with a 69, which left him in good shape even though it didn't leave him in the top 10.

The keepers of Augusta obviously heard the golfing public's cry last year that their tournament wasn't much fun anymore, that all the nipping and tucking and lengthening and tree planting had made the course too hard - and too likely to produce a second-tier champion like Zach Johnson or Trevor Immelman. So for the first round they extracted most of Augusta's teeth, removed the rattlesnakes from Rae's Creek and the man-eating python from the pond at 16 and said, basically, “Enjoy yourselves, gentlemen.”

And did the players ever. Chad Campbell flirted with breaking the tournament record of 63 - he was 9-under through 15 holes - before settling for a 65. Jim Furyk, meanwhile, hit every green in regulation… and was only tied with Hunter Mahan for the second-best score, a 66.

Furyk was having such a swell time, he didn't even realize what he had done. When I pointed his perfection out to him, he said, you know, now that he thought about it, “I don't remember chipping much. … That doesn't happen very often here. There are a lot of places where the ball can roll off the green, a lot of good shots turn out poorly. That's probably nothing that I will ever replicate again [at Augusta], and it's not going to happen again this week. I'm going to have to get the ball up and down and make the best of it in some situations.”

Almost everybody, it seemed, was going low. There were two 67s, eight 68s. In fact, there were 19 scores under 70 and twice that many under par - in both cases, the most ever for the first round. More than half the field shot par or better.

How crazy did it get? Well, at one point, with 50-year-old Larry Mize coming in at 67 and 54-year-old Greg Norman at 70, you actually entertained the following thought:

Wouldn't it be cool if, two decades later, those two squared off in a playoff again?

“It was probably as easy a day as I've ever seen at Augusta,” Harrington said, an opinion seconded by many. Indeed, it was so easy the players preferred not to dwell on the subject, lest they rankle the Greencoats and cause them to seek retribution these next three days. Better to let sleeping bogeys lie.

For several years now, Augusta's elders have been tinkering with the layout, trying to find the proper balance. They worry that technology - space-age clubs that give players previously unimagined length and accuracy - might overwhelm the course, which for a long time measured less than 7,000 yards.

Unfortunately, the results of their efforts - especially Johnson winning in 2007 with a 1-over 289 - have made them look like a bunch of Nutty Professors, unable to come up with a formula that doesn't blow up in their faces. Two years ago, the field of 97 looked like so many Sherman Klumps; on Thursday, all the players turned into Buddy Love. Somewhere between the two is the middle ground the Masters is seeking.

Actually, not everybody tore up the place in Round 1. Phil Mickelson managed only a 73, which seemed like an 80 in such ideal conditions. Retief Goosen and Ernie Els, both of whom have been runner-up here, did even worse: 75 - the same score up-and-comer Anthony Kim posted. For the longest time, even Tiger Woods looked like he was going to miss the party, until a flurry of three birdies on the back nine lifted him to a 70.

You can't win the Masters on Thursday, they say, but you can lose it on Thursday. On this particular Thursday, you could lose it by not taking advantage of a near-defenseless course and shooting under par, preferably well under par. The Lords of Augusta, after all, don't figure to tolerate another birdiefest like this one - not this year, anyway.

“At some stage,” Harrington said, “I expect to play a golf course that's very difficult, because this is a major championship. You really expect to be tested right to the end of your limits. Obviously, today was a nice day. But somewhere between now and [Sunday], I think you'll find that there will be maybe a tougher wind and a tougher day.”

And with that, he was off to the practice range to work on his driving, his chipping, his putting - the whole bit. He was 3-under, sure, but on this day it didn't impress him that much. His game, he claimed, needed “a little bit of tidying up.”

A ho-hum 69 at the Masters. It was that kind of Thursday at Augusta National.

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