Friday, 19 March 2010

Justin Rose spearheaded The European Tour challenge for the Masters Tournament when he moved into a share of the first round lead with American Brett Wetterich.

Back in action for the first time in six weeks after nursing a back strain, Rose defied demanding conditions at Augusta National with a flawless three under par 69 and was the only player of the day not to drop a shot to the Georgia venue.

The 26 year old Englishman, who led after the first two rounds at the 2004 Masters Tournament, reeled off three birdies on a 7,445-yard layout running fast and firm in bright sunshine.

Rose parred the last four holes to hold the outright lead before being joined by Wetterich, who notched three birdies and one bogey over the closing stretch.

The pair stood one stroke ahead of Rose's fellow Englishman David Howell, who eagled the par five 15th on his way to a 70, and American David Toms, out in the very last group of the day, who moved into contention with a strong back nine of 34.

South African Tim Clark, who finished two strokes behind Phil Mickelson last year, carded a 71 to share fourth place with Americans Vaughn Taylor, Zach Johnson, Rich Beem and JJ Henry.

Only nine players in the 96 strong field were under par in the first Masters Tournament since 1999 to be played under optimal, dry conditions and the extent of the difficulty felt by the field was illustrated by the fact that there were over twice as many bogeys recorded (464) as birdies (205) on the opening day.

"It's exciting to go bogey-free in the first round at Augusta on a day when the scores are pretty high," said Rose. "My short game was unbelievable and that's why I was able to shoot such a good score."

The three-time winner on The European Tour International Schedule needed only 20 putts but said that statistic was a little misleading.

"On more than one occasion I felt like I was ten or 12 feet from the pin putting for birdie but on the fringe, a one-putt that goes down as a zero putt," he added.

“I was a little worried a few weeks ago whether I'd be okay to play here, but I've worked on my fitness and rehab. I'm very cautious and making sure I am fully warmed up before I get to the (practice) range."

Rose, whose best performance in a Major remains his fourth place as a 17 year old amateur in the 1998 Open Championship, holed out from sand on the fifth and picked up further shots on the fifth and 14th before getting up and down from off the green four times in a row from the 15th - the last of them from another bunker.

He added: "My touch was amazing. It's something I've worked hard on, but because of my injury I wasn't sure about the sharpness you sometimes need.”

On what happened over the weekend three years ago he added: "I learned that one or two days [of leading] is so far from winning the tournament. You have to stay in the moment. I also learned this course demands respect. I started chasing, but the course is so subtle."

Joint leader Wetterich, whose only US PGA Tour victory came at last year's Byron Nelson Championship, relished the difficult conditions.

"The greens were awfully fast and if you're not careful you're going to make some bogeys out there," said the 33-year-old. "But I like it like that. It's nice to shoot three under and see your name at the top of the leaderboard but it's only Thursday."

One shot behind, Howell almost sank his three iron at the 15th on his way to the only eagle three of the day at the hole and that certainly made up for a double bogey on the fourth. He also had birdies at the seventh, eighth and tenth.

"I'm delighted - I didn't come in with an awful lot of confidence and was a little nervy wondering how the day was going to go," said the Swindon golfer, who had a taste of the lead himself two years ago before running into Woods at the peak of his powers.

"I was disappointed with the way I handled that, but hopefully I can use the experience."

World Number One Tiger Woods, chasing his third successive Major and 13th in all, moved just two back with birdies at the 13th and 15th, but he had swing problems all day and they cost him two closing bogeys for "only" a 73.

He said: "I just to need to organise a couple of things. I battled hard, but then went from right there to all of a sudden over par and I'm not real happy about that."

South African Ernie Els, twice a runner-up, struggled to a 78 and US Open champion Geoff Ogilvy of Australia, who ran up a triple-bogey eight at the second, had a 75.

"It was a very tough day," said three-time Major winner Els, who had to settle for second place after an epic last-day battle with Mickelson at Augusta National in 2004.

"If you mishit a shot today, you really paid the penalty. Everything was firm out there."

Several players failed to break 80, among them 1987 champion Larry Mize and three-times winner Gary Player who returned matching 83s. The 71-year-old Player is making a record-equalling 50th appearance at the Masters.

Cool, dry weather has been forecast for all four rounds at the pine tree-lined Augusta National.

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