AUGUSTA, GA. — Professional golfers, even some of the best of them, can go their whole lives and not understand how to fully deal with the whole Masters Tournament craziness.
It’s not just a week of golf. It is a seven-day, 24-hour cycle of attention and chaos – or can be if you can’t find a way to tune it out.
Bill Haas, who has jumped into the solo lead at the 78th Masters after his 4-under-par 68 on Thursday at Augusta National Golf Club, has found an inner calmness getting around this property.
He thinks about his family.
He watched his father, Jay, play most of his 22 Masters tournaments. His uncle Jerry has played here. Another uncle, Dillard Pruitt, has played here. And his great-uncle Bob Goalby won the tournament in 1968.
“I would follow my dad every shot – every day – and then I went to the (practice) range with him,” Haas said. “I wasn’t interested in the Masters; I was interested in my dad’s score at the Masters, if that makes sense.”
Trailing Haas is the short list of who’s-who in the past two Masters tournaments, including defending champion Adam Scott, 2012 Masters winner Bubba Watson and South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen – whom Watson defeated in a sudden-death playoff – all sitting one stroke back at 69.
For much of the morning, Sweden’s Jonas Blixt was the leader. Like Haas and Scott, he got to as low as 4-under before falling back to lead a group of seven golfers at 70.
Seattle’s Fred Couples made it five consecutive opening rounds of par or better at the Masters. He shot 71.
Some big names really struggled on a trickier-than-normal, first-round set-up Thursday. They included three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson and reigning U.S. Open champion Justin Rose at 76; Dustin Johnson at 77; 2013 Masters runner-up Angel Cabrera and former Masters champion Zach Johnson at 78; and reigning PGA Championship winner Jason Dufner at 80.
Puyallup’s Ryan Moore opened with his highest score in six Masters trips – a 77 – after making bogey on his final five holes.
Haas holds the overnight lead at a major for the first time. He also shot a round in the 60s for the first time at the Masters in 17 tries.
He was certainly helped by making three birdie putts of 15 feet or longer on the front side. And after nearly blocking his drive into the tree line on the right side of the 18th fairway, he hit his 8-iron approach shot that rolled up close for a final birdie.
As steep as his family history is here at the Masters, Haas has never been a real threat to win the title. His best finish was a tied-for-20th showing last year.
“It’s been a little bit of everything – putting, golf shots, nerves, all of the things that get you,” Haas said. “Tomorrow is a new day. … You’ve got to go out there and keep playing golf, try to hit that fairway on No. 1.”
If Haas relies on inner strength, Watson might have come into this week with a bit of an axe to grind.
The Florida native showed brilliant ball-striking composure, hitting 16 greens in regulation. He birdied both par-5 holes on the back nine, and is in really good position just a shot back.
“I’m coming back with a different mindset, full of energy,” Watson said. “I haven’t had any media this week, because nobody cares about the guy (who won) a couple of years ago.”
Except for a misjudged tee shot that splashed into Rae’s Creek at the 12th hole, leading to double bogey, Scott played an exceptional round to start defense of his Masters title. He has five birdies and no other hiccups.
“I was ready for it to start,” Scott said. “It’s really just been a thrilling week for me so far, and to go out and play in conditions like that today is just a treat around here.”
Even at 54, Couples still knows his way around this layout. The 1992 Masters champion thinks he can be a factor this week.
“The last few years have been very good, and I really played well today,” Couples said.
“Can a 50-year-old win here? I think so. I’m one of them. It’s hard for me personally to play a course this hard day after day after day after day for four solid rounds. But my goal is to compete with these guys.”
Mickelson had chipping issues at the seventh hole – he twice went across the green – that led to a triple bogey-7. And he never got into any birdie-making mode after that.
He tied his worst opening score at a Masters. He shot 76 to lead off the 2007 event.
“It wasn’t the best day for me,” Mickelson said. “Unfortunately I shot 4-over, and I’ve got a lot of work (Friday) just to make the cut.”
Todd Milles: 253-597-8442