AUGUSTA, Ga. — Hope springs eternal at every Masters, so it’s no surprise that a 53-year-old, a 14-year-old, and someone who said he doesn’t have what it takes to win major championships grabbed the first-round headlines.
On a benign day that offered the opportunity to go low at Augusta National Golf Club, a number of bold-faced names obliged, with 12 scores below 70, and 32 under par.
But it was actually an over-par round that had the place buzzing.
While his eighth-grade classmates were probably fast asleep half a world away, Chinese teenager Tianlang Guan made Masters history on Thursday, becoming the tournament’s youngest competitor, at 14 years, 5 months. Then he went out and shot a 1-over-par 73, capping his historic round by holing a birdie putt from the fringe on No. 18.
He’s seven shots behind leaders Sergio Garcia and Marc Leishman, and tied for 46th. But Guan youthfully embraced the moment, captivating crowds, charming the media, splitting fairways, and displaying a short game that had two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw applauding.
“It must help to have 14-year-old nerves. I’m telling you, he played like a veteran,” said Crenshaw, in the same group with Guan. “He played a beautiful round of golf. He stays well within himself, he’s very confident, very patient. Very, very, very impressive.”
Even Guan seemed to understand the significance of his performance, a score that beat the likes of defending champion Bubba Watson, Louis Oosthuizen, Stewart Cink, Ian Poulter, and Hunter Mahan.
“It’s like a dream come true,” Guan said. “I think I’ve just done a good job today.”
Guan shared much of the afternoon stage with one of the oldest players in the field, 53-year-old Fred Couples. Despite a bogey on No. 18, Couples shot 68, which left him tied for fourth in a group that included Rickie Fowler, Matt Kuchar, and Trevor Immelman. That bunch was one shot behind Dustin Johnson (67), and two behind Garcia and Leishman, giving the leaderboard some definite name recognition.
That it featured Couples is hardly a shock. In fact, the 1992 Masters winner is reaching the point where it’ll raise a stir if he doesn’t play well here. It’s the fourth straight year he’s been among the top 10 after a Masters round; in two of the last four years he’s hit the pillow with a lead.
“Honestly, it’s not surprising. I know I can play this course,” Couples said. “I’m going to play this tournament until I really don’t think I can win. This is a good spot for me. The people get me fired up and they yell hard and they’re everywhere. I look around, I enjoy it.”
Garcia enjoyed his day, too, something that hasn’t happened too often at Augusta National for the Spaniard. He’s been vocal and critical of the course — some would say whiny — and last year took it a step further, insinuating that his search for an elusive major championship would forever remain fruitless.
“I’m not good enough,” he told members of the Spanish media 12 months ago, after shooting himself out of the tournament with a third-round 75. “In 13 years, I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to play for second or third place.”
He found himself tied for first place after the first round, making five birdies in his first 10 holes, then overcoming a leaky driver on the closing stretch to stay bogey-free. After the 66 — which matches his best Masters score — Garcia was asked again about his feelings for Augusta National, and his comments from a year ago.
“I mean, those were my words. We go through tough moments, frustrating moments, and I know it was one of them,” Garcia said. “It’s obviously not my most favorite place, but you know, we try to enjoy it as much as we can each time we come here. Sometimes it comes out better than others, but today it was one of those good days.
“Every time I tee it off, I try to play as well as I can, hope that my best that week is really, really good, and if I manage to do that, I will have a chance at winning. If my best is not that good, then I’ll struggle a little bit. Today my best was pretty good, and I’m looking forward to doing the same thing the next three days.”
Leishman, who won last year’s Travelers Championship for his only PGA Tour win, posted his 66 some three hours before Garcia, and for a good portion of the day enjoyed a two-shot lead. But when the weather warmed up and the afternoon sun finally made an appearance, Leishman slowly became an afterthought. The rounds being scripted by Guan, Garcia, and Couples were too riveting, too entertaining.
We haven’t even mentioned Tiger Woods, who opened with 70, or Phil Mickelson’s 71. Those, too, took a back seat, at least on Thursday.
Three rounds to go. If they’re anything like the first, we’re in for an age-old treat.