Darren Clarke got his quest for his first Major Championship victory off to the best possible start with a scintillating six under par 66 to take a commanding lead after the first round of the 67th Masters Tournament at Augusta National.
The 34 year old Ulsterman’s supreme effort was the highlight of a wonderful opening round for the European Tour contingent in Augusta as one of his two nearest challengers, three shots adrift on 69, was Spain’s Sergio Garcia who stood alongside the surprise packet of the day, American Amateur champion Ricky Barnes.
Nick Price of Zimbabwe and Canada’s Mike Weir shared third on 70 but their rounds, like the rest of the field, were overshadowed by Clarke’s effort which was all the more impressive considering the sodden fairways which made the course play its full 7290 yards.
Starting at the tenth hole, Clarke made his intentions clear with an immediate birdie three but a dropped shot at the 11th suggested it might be a rollercoaster day for one of the stars of last year’s Ryder Cup victory. However, nothing could have been further from the truth as Clarke proceeded to go on the attack and he was flawless for his remaining 16 holes.
Birdies at the 13th and 14th and a 35 foot eagle putt on the 15th saw the Irishman to the ‘turn’ in 32 and he continued his assault on the front nine with birdies at the first and third. It moved Clarke to six under par for the day and six solid pars to finish saw him complete his best ever round at Augusta National and one of the best rounds in recent Masters Tournament history.
"I played nicely," said Clarke. "I have been playing well of late and it was nice to see it all come together. It is tough out there and very long but I had a good ball striking day and hit is stiff a couple of times which makes things a lot earier."
The Irishman’s Ryder Cup colleague Garcia also reached the ‘turn’ in 32 and shared the lead for a spell and indeed could have finished closer to Clarke if it had not been for an untidy end to his opening round.
Having driven the ball well in the early part of his round, errant tee shots at the seventh and ninth cost the Spaniard, who has missed the last three cuts on the US PGA Tour, bogeys at both holes, and he had to settle for a 69.
The good news for The European Tour contingent in Augusta continued when Paul Lawrie and debutant Justin Rose finished the first round high on the leaderboard too after both carded level par 72s.
Although their final card total was the same, the Scot and the Englishman arrived at it after differing fortunes on the testing 465 yard 18th, Lawrie holing a 30 foot for a birdie three, while Rose could only look on in anguish as his par effort horseshoed round the hole and stayed above ground for a bogey five.
One shot behind the duo and comfortably in the top 20 were four more European Tour Members on 73, another debutant Tim Clark and reigning European Tour Number One Retief Goosen, alongside past champions José Maria Olazábal and Vijay Singh.
However it was not such a memorable opening round for the men who had been expected to dominate the event, namely World Number One Tiger Woods and World Number Two Ernie Els.
Woods could only look on as his unheralded playing partner Ricky Barnes stole the show and the World Number One, who had to pitch in from off the green at the first for a bogey five, continued to find it was not his day with an opening 76, a round which contained not a single birdie.
Els fared even worse and, despite carding birdies at the 15th and 17th, stumbled to seven bogeys and a double bogey five at the short sixth on his way to a seven over par 79 and a share of 72nd place from the 93 man field.