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THE MASTERS

Singh Is Scare Free

He has no bogeys in his 67 and leads a major after the first round for the first time. Big names are in contention on the lengthy layout.

April 07, 2006|Thomas Bonk | Times Staff Writer

AUGUSTA, Ga — The advance billing for the Masters was enough to cause rapid heartbeat, high blood pressure, anxiety and possibly hair loss. It screamed at the top of its lungs: Augusta National Golf Club, 7,445 yards of sheer terror.

Then they started playing the 70th Masters on a warm, humid, mostly calm Thursday and, somehow, the place didn't seem all that different from last year. Augusta National was big and bad and mean as usual, but there were no triage stations behind any green.

"It wasn't quite monstrous," Luke Donald said.

That's not to say things didn't get ugly at times, although not for Vijay Singh, who hummed along without a care in the world, and also without a bogey, on his way to a five-under-par 67. That earned him a one-shot lead over Rocco Mediate on opening day of the first major championship of the year.

It was the first time in four years that the first-round leader played bogey free and also the first time that Singh had led a major after 18 holes. His 67 was his best opening round in 13 trips to Augusta National, including 2000, when he opened with a 72 and wound up winning.

He said that although the course was no pushover, the conditions weren't mind-bending. Still, it wasn't as easy as it might have appeared because of the better-than-expected scores.

"They can make it really difficult," Singh said. "They can dry it up and put the pins where [they are] hard to get to. It doesn't need too much. It's very warm right now and the ball is going a long ways.

"Better not say that too loud. Maybe they will move it back 50 yards next year."

At the end of the day, 18 players were under par, compared to 13 in 2005. Mediate shot 32 on the back, the same as Singh, and finished at four-under 68, one shot ahead of Arron Oberholser, who eagled the 530-yard, par-five 15th and is alone in third place after a 69.

Tiger Woods holed out for an eagle on the 14th hole and rolled in a 35-foot putt to birdie the last hole, closing out his round with a par 72. It's his best opening round in four years and a two-shot improvement over last year's first round, after which he played the next three at 14 under and won his fourth Masters title.

"Better than last year," Woods said. "So I'm in good shape."

Woods' biggest wobble was at the 15th, which played as the easiest hole on the course for nearly everyone else. He pulled his drive, laid up into a divot, and then knocked his ball into the water.

It was the only double bogey of the day at the 15th and the only time he has made double bogey at the 15th in 43 rounds.

Playing in the next-to-last group, Phil Mickelson birdied the 15th and 16th and moved into a four-way tie for fourth at two-under 70, where he was joined by Tim Clark, Retief Goosen and Geoff Ogilvy.

Mickelson said the greens were difficult, but the conditions good. That might change today.

"The concern is the wind," he said. "It'll be really tough."

There is a logjam of 11 players at one-under 71, a group that includes major winners Ernie Els, Rich Beem, Mike Weir, Ben Curtis, Fred Couples and 54-year-old Ben Crenshaw, the 1995 Masters champion.

They all seemed capable of taking advantage of the benign conditions at Augusta National, where the average score was 74.94. Last year, when it was cool and breezy, the average first-round score was 75.14.

Woods said the course was dry and firm and playing fast, which seems to have worked against the conventional wisdom that only big hitters need apply. For instance, Mediate ranks 161st in driving distance, Oberholser is 148th and Clark is 175th.

Singh and Mediate were the only two players who birdied the daunting 505-yard par-four 11th, which has been lengthened 50 yards since 1999.

"It's the hole we think about before we go out there," said Singh, who hit a driver, cut a five-iron to about 10 feet and made the putt for a birdie. "I wasn't on the fairway. I was in the right rough, but I could carve it around that tree they have there and pulled the shot off. I looked up and it was going straight for the pin."

Mediate couldn't have experienced a more deliberate start. He had 10 consecutive pars, then made a 15-foot putt to birdie the 11th.

"You're not supposed to do that on that hole," he said. "I actually kind of apologized to the hole as I left."

Goosen, who hit into the small forest that has been added in recent years to the right side of the 11th fairway, still managed to save his par. He birdied the 12th and 13th, made par the rest of the way and counted his day a success.

"I thought the golf course played as good as we'll see it out there," he said. "Hardly any wind. So it can only get tougher when the wind starts blowing and [with] the greens drying out."

Goosen said the greens were already losing their moisture and that the firm fairways had helped the shorter hitters get more roll on their drives.

Chances are that it won't stay the same. The greens will get harder, the pin placements will be devilish, the longer course will take its toll and Augusta National will become the major problem that everyone has said it would be. But for one day, it was a lot more attractive than anyone could have expected.

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