AUGUSTA, Ga. — Even before this edition of the Masters began Thursday morning, it was obvious Augusta National Golf Club in April was nothing like it was in November. Far less clear was which course Justin Rose was playing.
Rose made seven birdies and an eagle during a torrid 10-hole stretch for a 7-under-par 65 and a four-shot lead, his lowest score at the Masters in one of its toughest opening rounds.
It started with a nice hop off the mounds left of the green on the par-5 eighth that set up a 10-foot eagle. Only two of his birdie putts were outside eight feet, and he holed a 12-foot par putt on the one green he missed. Not bad for a 40-year-old playing for the first time in a month after resting an ailing back.
The Englishman's round looked even better on a day so tough only 12 players broke par and the average score was 74.5.
"Listen, I didn't know where my game was going into this week," Rose said. "I've been working hard. I could have played the last two tournaments, but I was really trying to prepare hard for this Masters."
Twice a runner-up at Augusta, including a playoff loss to Sergio Garcia four years ago, Rose tied a Masters record by taking at least a share of the first-round lead for the fourth time. The other to do that was 18-time major champion Jack Nicklaus. The difference? Nicklaus went on to win two of his six green jackets from that position.
Rose likes to say he's only had one arm in the jacket.
Georgia native Brian Harman, the last player to get into the 88-man field, and Japan's Hideki Matsuyama were wrapping up their rounds of 69 about the time Rose began on a course that was dry and crusty, with greens so fast there were splotches of brown.
Four players were tied for fourth at 70: 2018 tournament winner Patrick Reed, Masters newcomer Will Zalatoris, 2012 U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson and South Africa's Christiaan Bezuidenhout.
Of the three Baylor School graduates currently on the PGA Tour, only Harris English is in the field this year. He was 2 over at the turn, and he sandwiched a double bogey on the par-4 14th with his only two birdies of the round on the way to a 74 that had him tied for 31st.
Missing were a slew of red numbers on the leaderboard in conditions so difficult that Garcia, after a 76, made reference to a former heavyweight boxing champion with Atlanta ties: "I feel like I just came out of the ring with Evander Holyfield."
Five months ago, when the COVID-19 pandemic led to the Masters being played in the fall for the first time, the turf was so soft that 53 players were under par after the opening round.
On this day, reigning British Open champion Shane Lowry chipped from the back of the 15th green into the water in front of the green. He escaped with a bogey and managed a 71. U.S. Amateur champion Tyler Strafaci hit a 60-foot putt from behind the ninth green that wound up 75 feet away on the other side.
Reigning tourney champion Dustin Johnson, who set the Masters' 72-hole record in November at 20-under 268, failed to break par at Augusta for the first time since the opening round in 2018. He three-putted for double bogey on the 18th for a 74.
"I feel sorry for the guys' first Masters in November, and then they're walking out there today wondering what the hell is going on," Kevin Kisner said after a hard-earned 72.
This was no surprise. Rain had not fallen on the course in more than a week, and players could not recall the last time greens were this fast during practice rounds, much less with a scorecard in hand on a Thursday.
"It's my 10th year, but I've never seen the greens so firm and fast," Matsuyama said. "So it was like a new course for me playing today, and I was fortunate to get it around well."
And what to say of Rose? Even in more forgiving conditions, he had never done better than a 67.
"I didn't feel like today was the day for a 65, if I'm honest," he said.
No one needed convincing, least of all Bryson DeChambeau and Rory McIlroy, among the top players who struggled with the wind and had just as many problems when the ball was on the ground.
DeChambeau, the U.S. Open champion who has been licking his chops about bringing his super-sized game to Augusta, didn't make a birdie until the 15th hole and shot a 76, his highest score as a pro at the Masters. Patrick Cantlay hit into the water on both par 3s on the back nine and settled for a 79.
"Guys are going to shoot themselves out of the golf tournament on day one," Simpson said after a late double bogey kept him out of in the group tied for second.
McIlroy, needing a green jacket to complete the career Grand Slam, hit his father with a wayward shot on the seventh hole. That was about the most interesting moment in his round of 76. Lee Westwood, a two-time Masters runner-up who had a pair of second-place finishes in the PGA Tour's recent Florida swing, had a 78.
Rose looked as though he might be headed the direction of his fellow Englishman. He made a soft bogey on No. 1. He three-putted across the green on No. 7. He was 2 over, though not ready to panic.
He knew the course was going to be tough. He also knew he had to adjust.
"You can't win the golf tournament today. Even with a 65 you can't win it today," Rose said. "You can only probably lose it today, obviously. I reset just prior to that and thought if I can get myself back around even par, that would be a good day's work."
On the eighth hole, his 5-wood set up a 10-footer for eagle. On the ninth, his 9-iron to the dangerous left pin created a four-foot birdie putt. He holed a 25-foot putt on the 10th, took par on the 11th, then got right back to it with back-to-back birdies.
Even from the first cut of rough on the 17th, his wedge shot settled four feet from the cup and he finished off a string of three straight holes gaining a stroke.
He finished going over the details of that incredible stretch, smiled and said, "Sounds easy."
It looked that way, too — but only for him.