AUGUSTA, Ga. – Justin Rose was just another name in the middle of the leaderboard late on Thursday afternoon, his score of 2 over through seven holes as dull as the gray skies above.
Then the Englishman who has been so close to slipping on the green jacket lit up the famous white scoreboards with plenty of red numbers.
In a 10-hole stretch ignited by an eagle from short range on the par-5 eighth, Rose was 9 under on a firm and fast course that was causing fits for most everyone else and he soared to the lead after the first round of the 85th Masters.
Rose went eagle-birdie-birdie-par-birdie-birdie-par-birdie-birdie-birdie-par to finish his round of 7-under-par 65 and left the Augusta National Golf Club’s grounds with a four-shot lead.
It was his career best by two shots at Augusta National in 59 rounds and 9.5 shot better than the field average.
“I kind of knew 2 over through 7 is not the end of the world, but also knew you’re going in the wrong direction,” Rose said. “I didn’t hit the panic button, but 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.”
Well, it became a great day’s work.
“I just got on a great run and was just trying to stay out of my own way and just try to get it to the clubhouse and keep doing what I was doing,” he said. “I putted the ball beautifully and read the greens unbelievably well. If you had said to me walking up the eighth hole (I’d shoot 65), I’d have said no chance, this course is playing a little too tricky for that. But it’s incredible. It’s a good reminder that you just never know what can happen out there, just to stick with it on the golf course.”
Four shots back in second were Brian Harman and Hideki Matsuyama, who is trying to complete a Land of the Rising Sun major double at Augusta National. Last week, 17-year-old Tsubasa Kajitani of Japan defeated Emilia Migliaccio on the first hole of a sudden-death playoff to win the second Augusta National Women’s Amateur. The 29-year-old Hideki Matsuyama, the best golfer from golf-crazy Japan who is a five-time winner on the PGA Tour and eight-time winner on the japan Golf Tour, could become the first male player from Japan to win a major.
Two women from Japan have won majors – Hisako Higuchi (1977 LPGA Championship) and Hinako Shibuno (2019 Women’s British Open).
In at 70 and five shots back were 2018 Masters champion Patrick Reed, Will Zalatoris (who was ranked 483rd exactly one year ago), 2012 U.S. Open winner Webb Simpson and Christiaan Bezuidenhout.
Defending champion and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, who shattered scoring records en route to winning the Masters in November, opened with a 74.
Johnson was joined at 74 by four-time major winner Brooks Koepka and two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson. Others over par included Lee Westwood (78), Jason Day (77), four-time major champ Rory McIlroy (76), reigning U.S. Open champ Bryson DeChambeau (76) and 2017 Masters champion Sergio Garcia (76).
Rose, 40, who finished in a tie for second in 2015 and lost in a playoff to Garcia in 2017, took the first-round lead at the Masters for the fourth time. He did so on a windswept day when the scoring average was north of 74.5. And he did so in his first tournament since back spasms forced him to withdraw in the third round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational five weeks ago.
Rose has been struggling with his form since golf returned in June following a 13-week break due to the COVID-19 global pandemic. In 19 starts worldwide, he’s mustered just three top-10s. The 2013 U.S. Open winner at Merion, who has 10 PGA Tour titles and eight European Tour victories, has fallen to 41st in the official world golf rankings, his lowest mark since 2010.
Justin Rose hits his tee shot on the 18th hole during the first round of The Masters golf tournament. Mandatory Credit: Michael Madrid-USA TODAY Sports
But he’s gone back to coach Sean Foley and there were few struggles in Thursday’s first round. In his 10-hole blitz, he made an eagle putt from 10 feet and birdie putts from four, 25, six, three, eight, 20 and four feet.
“I didn’t know where my game was coming into this week,” Rose said. “I’ve been working hard, seeing a lot of improvement on the range. The start was slow. But experience kicked in. I knew it was a tough day.”
Now he has to deal with having the lead, but his expectations will remain the same.
“That’s going to be the trick the rest of the week,” Rose said. “Hopefully you can just run off instinct a little bit. I’ve competed in these big tournaments quite a few times, and I’ve got one of them to my name, but we’re looking for more.
“I think to keep the expectations relatively low even in this situation is not a bad thing for me for the remainder of the week and just keep it one shot at a time, keep committing on this golf course.”