As the stricken Dustin Johnson walked from the 1st tee at Augusta National, thereby producing one of the most dramatic departures in major championship history, the Thursday narrative seemed set. Only something extraordinary would match the Johnson storyline.
Enter Charley Hoffman. Given brutally tough conditions, the afternoon 65 as posted by this 40-year-old from San Diego ranks among the finest opening rounds in 81 stagings of the Masters. It was a performance worthy of a trophy and 10 better than the field average. Hoffman birdied five of the last six holes when marching to the summit of the leaderboard, a position he holds by four heading into day two. Only Hoffman and William McGirt, who had a superb 69, could break 70.
It would be legitimate to assume the other 93 players in this Masters field gleaned inspiration from the sight of the world No1, a hitherto dominant figure, exiting stage left moments before his tournament was due to get under way. Far less predictable after the Johnson theatre was the identity of Hoffman as the man to make hay. He is ranked No52 in the world, after all; hardly a journeyman professional but holding a pretty average major record which shows one top-10 finish in 22 appearances. “I feel comfortable here,” said Hoffman later, with a decent dose of understatement.
English golf successfully played on the law of averages. That nation accounted for a remarkable 11 of the competitor list; by close of play, five were within seven of the lead. If that hardly sounds remarkable, Hoffman’s exploits – in taking the largest Thursday advantage since 1955 – certainly were. Paul Casey, the lowest of that England quintet, shares 12th. Lee Westwood’s 70 means he lies third with Andy Sullivan and Matt Fitzpatrick at one under par and Justin Rose a further shot back.
If Johnson’s back issue – he tumbled down stairs in an Augusta rental home on Wednesday afternoon – was well known, the presumption was the 32-year-old would participate after he not only took part in a full range session but headed for the opening tee. At that juncture the key seed of doubt came to the fore. Johnson about-turned and headed for the clubhouse, making his scale of disappointment abundantly clear when en route.
“I was making swings on the range but could only go 80%,” Johnson said. “I could make a good backswing but at impact it was too much. So I don’t feel like there was any chance of me competing.
“I was doing everything I could to play. I was up most of last night using ice, using heat, using ice again. I was desperate to get it ready for this morning. I just can’t make my normal swing because of my lower left back.
“I didn’t get much sleep but that’s not the issue. I want to play. The issue is I just can’t swing.
“I’m playing the best golf of my career. This is an event I look forward to every year, so to have a freak accident mean I can’t play? It just sucks, it really does.
“If it happened on Monday, I don’t think we would have any issues but it happened on Wednesday afternoon. It would even have been great if it’d happened after this because I have three weeks off.”
Someone, somewhere decided this was not to be Johnson’s Green Jacket year. The golfing gods have always operated in mysterious ways.
Anyone seeking calm after Wednesday’s electric storm was to be sadly disappointed as the wind whipped around Augusta to the extent the venue became more severe by the hour. Towering pine trees arced under the strain of biting gusts, with only sensible pin positions and greens softened by a pre-tournament deluge ensuring the course remained playable. Competitors had to hang on for dear life; it soon became clear that an opening round of level par or better represented an outstanding return.
Rory McIlroy battled back manfully from the position of plus three after eight. ’s 72 leaves him well placed to challenge, providing of course Hoffman doesn’t maintain his Thursday pace.
Jason Day’s return to competitive action was marked by a 74. Jordan Spieth lies one stroke behind Day, with a remarkable quadruple-bogey nine at the 15th the key aberration of the 2015 champion’s Thursday. Spieth left the course to confirmation of the Johnson scenario. “I could see on the board that his name was taken down,” said Spieth. “Certainly it is really unfortunate. As a friend of his and somebody who has played a lot of golf with him, I know this must not be good in order for him not to tee it up. I certainly wish him well.”
The signs were ominous for Danny Willett as he opened his Masters defence with a double bogey. The YorkshiremanWillett is due credit not only for the incurring of no further damage but actually curtailing it; he signed for a 73.
“When I was stood on the 3rd tee if someone had said I would shoot 73 I would have ripped their hand off, walked up the hill, gone inside and had a cup of tea,” he said. “I fought back really well, dug my heels in and hit some really good golf shots.”
Willett was among those to gaze in wonder at Hoffman – and rightly so.