It took 36 hours and 23 holes but sometime around midday on Friday Charley Hoffman, a portly 40-year-old ranked No52 in the world, finally realised he was playing in the Masters. For the last day-and-a-half, Hoffman seemed to have fooled himself into thinking he was playing in some small town Sunday fundraiser, the Pro-Am at Podunk Country Club.
On Thursday, Hoffman played one of the finest opening rounds in the history of the Masters, a seven-under-par 65, which left him four shots clear of the next best, and was 10 strokes ahead of the average score for the day. That night, no joke, some of the more excitable American pundits were asking out loud where his round was ranked among the greatest ever played. Whatever your answer, it was some accomplishment for a man who has won four PGA events in 17 years.
Hoffman has been up on the leaderboard here before. He had a good run in 2015, when he was second after two days, and finished tied for ninth. But still, that was the only time he has finished in the top 10 at a major since he turned professional back in 2000. So the gallery following him on Friday must have been a little busier than he was used to. Not that he seemed to notice too much. Hoffman’s manner is as easy as that of a man beginning a long stretch of gardening leave. He knocked his opening drive straight down the middle of the fairway, and sauntered off after it, shoulders slumped, arms slack, hands in his pockets. While he was waiting for the group ahead, he crossed one leg behind the other and leaned over on his club. And then he clipped his approach on to the green, made light work of a long putt, and finished with a tap-in for par.
When he is playing well Hoffman makes golf look a very simple business, a matter of moving the ball incrementally through a series of ever-decreasing circles. At the long, downhill second, Hoffman found the middle of the fairway again. His approach took him to the front of the green, and from there he took two putts for his first birdie of the day, and his 10th of the tournament so far. That put him eight-under, and five shots clear. At the third, his second shot landed over the back on the fringe of the green. So he tossed his club away in the vague direction of his bag, strolled on and two-putted for another par. And at the fourth, he played a tee-shot that left everyone gasping in admiration, plopped over the front bunker and tight by the front pin, as simple as popping a bottle top. But then he missed his birdie putt, which, he said later, was a turning point in his day.
Hoffman has a short swing and hits the ball low under the wind. He has the game for these conditions. But there is more to it than mechanics. As he said himself before the round, “it’s all mental”. His father, Ernie, was out there walking the course too. Ernie Hoffman quit his job in construction a decade or so ago. He says he is not much of a golfer himself but his drinking buddy reckoned that was a lie. “Ernie’s the kind of guy who says he’s no good, then buries you.” He’s easily underestimated then. Like father, like son. Ernie Hoffman said nobody should be fooled by his son’s demeanour. “He’ll be feeling it on the inside,” he said, “and plenty”. And pretty much as he was done saying that, Charley’s day started to go all sorts of wrong. At the sixth, he hit his first really bad shot, a chip that flew way past the pin
Hoffman’s bogey there was the first of five in the next six holes. At the seventh, he flew his drive wide to the right, and zig-zagged his way from front bunker to the back of the green. At the eighth he hit a fat wedge, catching the club in the soft turf, then missed a short putt.
At the 10th he had to lay up after he hooked his drive left into the trees. At the 11th he had to scramble out of the pine-needles by hooking his second shot over the crowd at Amen Corner and onto the front lip of the green. A chip, two putts and all of a sudden he had dropped five shots in six holes, and was sharing the lead with Sergio García. There are stones that sink slower. Hoffman had run out all the slack he had earned on the first day in the space of six holes.
To his credit, Hoffman gathered himself together and snapped out of the tailspin with a fine tee shot at the 12th and a quite brilliant chip over the creek and up to the pin at the 13th. From there, he came home in even par. Which meant he finished with a three-over 75, four-under overall. Just clinging to the lead. Only there are a lot of good golfers right behind him, men with a lot more experience of competing in the final weekend at majors and in the Masters. Ernie Hoffman thinks his son can still “light it up” in the days ahead but outside his own family you probably will not find too many who would back him to be leading come Sunday evening.
Still, Hoffman has already won one prize. Augusta National awards a crystal vase to whoever shoots the day’s low score. Which is good, because it means that when Hoffman wakes on Monday he will know he was not dreaming after all.