Thursday, 06 April 2006

Former winner Vijay Singh of Fiji racked up four birdies in five holes to set the early pace in the first round of the 70th Masters Tournament on Thursday while holder Tiger Woods ground out a level par 72. Champion six years ago, Singh picked up shots at the 11th, 13th, 14th and 15th for an opening 67 in difficult conditions at a sun-baked Augusta National.

That left him one ahead of American Rocco Mediate, who birdied the same stretch of holes in a blemish-free display.  Another American, Arron Oberholser, opened with a 69 to finish a stroke better than World Number Three Retief Goosen and fellow South African Tim Clark with England’s David Howell the leading European on 71.


Howell, who tied for 11th on his Masters debut last year, said: “I have to be pleased with that. I didn’t drive it as well as I normally do but I didn’t make any silly mistakes. I think four rounds under par would suit very nicely.”

World Number One Woods moved to one under by spectacularly holing out from the fairway with an eight iron for an eagle two at the par four 14th. However, he then ran up a double bogey seven at the 15th before finishing in style with a birdie three at the last.

Of the other big names in the first Major of the year, three-time winner Nick Faldo opened with a 79, exactly a decade after his famous eclipse of Greg Norman in the final round, while European Ryder Cup Captain, Ian Woosnam, eked out a 77. Two-time Champions Bernhard Langer wore a weary expression after a 79 while Sandy Lyle, the 1988 winner, traded a bemused expression for a happier one after making an eagle at the 15th followed by three pars to finish with an 80.


Faldo, meanwhile, admitted that he “doesn’t have the guns” for Augusta any more and looked perplexed over his start to the week. Woosnam played with his opposite number, Tom Lehman, and was not displeased with his five over par round.


“The course isn’t quite like 1991 (when he won), but then my body’s not quite the same either” he smiled. “A 77 is not the end of the world. It’s a tough old slog out there but I didn’t play too badly.”


Meanwhile US Ryder Cup Captain Lehman revealed he had escaped unhurt in a random drive-by shooting incident before launching his challenge at the Masters.

The 1996 Open Champion carded a four over par 76 in the first round but was more concerned about the single shot fired into the back door of his car as he drove to the airport to pick up his wife and children on Tuesday evening.

"I'm most happy it happened before I picked up my wife and kids, one of my kids would have been sitting in the back seat," he said. "It was a surreal experience. I'm happy I was able to quickly tell the police and they caught him before he hurt somebody.

"It was a crazy experience, you don't normally have someone shooting at you. You open the paper every day and you read about these things. It's so random, so unexpected, you have to just shake your head."

Lehman said he was at first unaware what had happened after hearing a large blast as a car sped past him. It was not until he arrived at the airport that he discovered a hole in the door of his Masters courtesy car.

Lehman’s troubles didn’t create a conversation point between the two Captains. "I didn't ask him about that (the shooting). We were just trying to play the golf course and concentrate on not letting it beat us up too much."


Luke Donald, recent winner of the Honda Classic, found his opening 74 a “bit of a grind” but doesn’t regard his two over par score as disastrous. As he pointed out: “It (the course) wasn’t quite monstrous today.”


Colin Montgomerie, Europe’s Number One last season, matched Donald’s 74 and said: “I double bogeyed the second so it seemed a long way to go from there, but to play the rest in level par isn’t too bad at all.”


The recovery of the day was staged by Padraig Harrington, who was five over par after seven holes but fought back strongly to finish on 73 with an inward 33, beaten only by Singh and Mediate. Harrington admitted: "Overall I am happy that I came back strongly. After being five over par after seven holes there was no question of me defending. My mind was focused on going for it with no real fear of the consequences."


The 2003 champion Mike Weir opened with a 71 while former World Number One David Duval slumped to an 84, his worst round at Augusta.  Twice winner Ben Crenshaw, who has not made the cut at the Masters since 1997, produced a superb display of chipping and putting to return a 71.

"There were a few miracles out there," the 54 year old Texan said after mixing four birdies with three bogeys.  "It's quite a test and one hard course. It's one difficult hole after another. You must hit a long ball here.

"This is definitely a young man's course," added Crenshaw, Masters Champion in 1984 and 1995.  "That's where we are with the game right now. We're lengthening courses all over the globe."

Augusta National has been stretched to 7,445 yards since last year's tournament, making it the second longest course in major championship history.

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