Westwood leads, Stenson falters at Masters
At times, it felt more like the last day of the Masters than the first — with errant tee shots and thoughts of bad swings turning Augusta National into a fragile free-for-all for Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson and lots of other would-be leaders.
Lee Westwood never got caught up in the pressure cooker.
One of the best players to never win a major took the lead after the first round for the first time in his career, shooting a stress-free 5-under 67 on a day when Woods couldn't control his driver, Mickelson spent time tromping through the scrub and the man who led for most of the day, Henrik Stenson, closed out his day with a quadruple-bogey meltdown that sent him tumbling down the standings.
"Just trying to cruise my way into the tournament today and get in a good position and then hopefully stay there," Westwood said.
He finished with a one-shot lead over Peter Hanson and 2010 British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen, and another shot in front of a group of six that included Bubba Watson and Ben Crane.
McIlroy, expected to be part of a two-man show with Woods, opened the day with a double bogey and spent the rest of the round scrambling to get in the red — something he finally did with a birdie on No. 18 to close at 71.
"I wouldn't quite say it was a soap opera, but it wasn't the best, obviously," he said, after hitting only six of 14 fairways. "It wasn't the start that I would have liked to have got off to."
Westwood, meanwhile, looked to be in his comfort zone. He knows how to compete at majors, with six top-three finishes since 2008. At Augusta two years ago, he was the leader heading into the final round. On that day, he three-putted the ninth green to lose the lead and ended up as a bit player while Mickelson won his third green jacket.
Westwood's methods after all these close calls?
"When you're in contention and don't finish it off, you go home and assess what you didn't do and what you can improve," he said. "And that's what I did."
On this day, his plans worked. He rattled off four straight birdies from Nos. 5 through 8, and didn't face a putt of longer than 10 feet on any of them.
Easy when it's going that well.
Woods, Mickelson and the rest never enjoyed that feeling on a damp day that was built for scoring, save some tough pin positions and all the mud on the ball.
It started on the very first swing for Woods, who hooked his shot into the pines on No. 1, then into a creek far left of the fairway on No. 2. He scrambled to save par both those times and steadied himself through the middle of the round, spending some time at 2 under and near the top of the leaderboard.
But he couldn't overcome errant tee shots on Nos. 17 and 18. He finished with a pair of bogeys — the one on 18 coming after he dropped from an unplayable lie for a penalty stroke and saved the 5 from the woods.
He said he eked everything he could out of a day that felt bad from the moment he stepped on the driving range.
"Old patterns," he said. "Some of my old stuff from a few years ago. I'm trying to work through it. Every now and again, it pops up and today it popped up again."
Hard to tell what stuff Mickelson was working with on this day. It began bright and early with him standing on the first tee box watching Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player hit the ceremonial first tee shots. About eight hours later, Mickelson was stomping through the brush with dozens of fans, spending the full five minutes looking for a lost ball left of the 10th fairway.
He never found it and ended up with a triple-bogey 7. Three birdies down the stretch, including one of only seven made all day on No. 18, still left him at 2-over 74.
"It was a very poor swing on 10," Mickelson said. "I knew walking off the green at 4 over I wasn't going to get them all back before the round was through. But if I could just get a couple back, I felt like I could get some back on the following day."
Indeed, "tomorrow," had to be on Stenson's mind after a final hole that ruined all his good work over the first 17.
Stenson spent almost the entire day in the lead at 6 under and looked like he'd be celebrating his 36th birthday with cake, presents and at least a share of the first-round lead.
Not to be.
He smashed his tee shot on 18 deep into the woods, couldn't get out after trying to scoot the ball below some trees, then got a bad lie on trampled pine straw and hit a mediocre punch out on his third shot, which had him pounding his club into the ground. His fourth shot, from 122 yards, missed the green. He chunked his chip, then needed three putts to limp in with an 8 and a score of 1-under 71 — in contention but tied for 14th after spending the day in first.
"If I would have gotten the second shot out on the fairway, it would have been a different story. That's normally what happens," Stenson said. "You make a little mistake and then you compound it with another one, and it just keeps on snowballing, and I got the snowman in the end."
Westwood never came close to anything like that.
"I figured if I drive the ball well, which I generally do, then I'm going to have a chance to get it close to flags and from there, it's just an issue of how many putts I hole," he said.
Yes, he made it sound easy. He knows as well as anyone, though, that it's always easier on a Thursday.