AUGUSTA, Ga. - Never mind first-round leaders Justin Rose and Brett Wetterich. The real winner in the Masters yesterday was the golf course.
With Augusta National dry, firm and fast, the revered theater of golf finally played the way former chairman Hootie Johnson envisioned it would when he had it lengthened to a behemoth 7,445 yards two years ago.
Add a slight chill in the Augusta air and a breezy morning, and the result was that the best two rounds of the day were a couple of 3-under-par 69s by Rose, an Englishman playing in his third Masters, and Wetterich, who is playing in his first.
Only nine players managed subpar rounds, and the average score of the field was a whopping 76.187.
That doesn't top the all-time high average score (77.18 in 1956), but it's among the highest first-round averages in the modern era of the Masters and well above the cumulative four-round average of 74.2 since 1942.
Player after player said the course played much tougher than it had during practice rounds, and they almost gulped at the prospect of firmer and faster conditions during the weekend.
"The greens are very firm, very hard," said Tom Watson, a two-time winner who wasn't complaining about his first-round 75. "They had a feel I hadn't seen in years."
With the course playing both long and hard, the players faced the very test Masters fans have been talking about since 2004, when the lengthening was completed. Until now, though, every Masters in recent years has been affected or interrupted by rain, taking some of the bite out of the course.
Wetterich, for one, was happy with yesterday's conditions.
"I thought it was a good test of golf out there today," he said. "To me, they don't have to do any changes."
A 2005 qualifying-school graduate who played his way onto last year's Ryder Cup team, Wetterich was not about to get too excited about his early standing.
"It's nice to shoot 3 under and see your name at the top of the leader board, but it's only Thursday," he said. "An awful lot can happen in the next day and the next two days."
Tiger Woods, everyone's favorite to win his fifth green jacket, struggled much of the day, finishing bogey-bogey to shoot a 1-over 73.
"I threw away a good round of golf," said Woods, disgusted with himself.
Woods began with six consecutive pars, with the stretch ending when he hit a wild tee shot - one of several for the day - at the seventh.
The ball ended up right of the fairway, on pine straw. He tried to thread the needle and go for the green, but the ball caught a limb and didn't get out of the trees.
After making the turn at 1-over 37, Woods picked up birdies on both par 5s on the back nine to get to 1 under, creeping onto the leader board. He undid his gains, however, when he found the trees off the tee at both the 17th and 18th, unable to fire at the greens.
Woods had a peach of a day, however, compared with defending champion Phil Mickelson, who shot 76, and another favorite, Ernie Els, who shot 78.
For Wetterich, each and every round this week will be uncharted territory. Not so for Rose, his co-leader, who three years ago grabbed the first-round lead with a 67 in his second Masters. After a 71 on Friday, Rose still owned a share of the lead.
By Saturday, however, the pressure got to Rose, then only 23. He ballooned to an 81 in the third round and eventually finished tied for 22d.
He's a better, more mature player now, as evidenced by his hitting only five greens and still carding a bogey-free round yesterday, thanks mostly to his needing only 20 putts.
Obviously, Rose has not forgotten what happened in 2004.
"Sometimes you learn more from situations that go badly than when things go well," he said. "I learned a lot about the golf course and how you've got to pace yourself during the week."