Masters debutants Jonas Blixt and Kevin Stadler sprinted out of the blocks to grab the early clubhouse lead on two-under-par 70 in the opening round of the 78th Masters on Thursday.
Miguel Angel Jimenez was setting the pace out on the course after the pony-tailed Spaniard squeezed four birdies into a four-under front nine of 32. Another seasoned campaigner, American Steve Stricker, was in second place on three under after 10 holes on a sun-kissed morning in the first major championship of the season.
The shortest club was the hottest in the bag for Blixt as he took only 11 putts on the way to an outward nine of 33, three under. The 29-year-old Florida-based Swede, who has won twice on the PGA Tour, then produced a sumptuous approach to the par-five 13th. Blixt missed his eagle putt there from seven feet but safely tapped in for another birdie before bogeys at the 15th and 18th took him back to two under. Stadler, the son of 1982 Masters winner Craig, was a model of consistency as he mixed four birdies with two dropped strokes.
Among a gaggle of players at two under out on the course were pre-tournament favourites Rory McIlroy (seven holes) and Adam Scott (eight), the defending champion. Earlier, the event was launched by honorary starters Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player. Elder statesman Palmer, 84, a four-times Masters champion, hit a solid blow up the middle with the first ceremonial shot before triple winner Player, 78, outdrove him by about 50 yards.
Six-times champion Nicklaus, 74, rose to the challenge by sneaking his drive just past Player’s to the delight of a cheering crowd packed around the first tee.
“I think Jack outdrove me by a yard or two,” Player told reporters. “But it’s not bad when you think he used to outdrive me by 50.” The three lions of the game made 147 Masters appearances between them and combined to dominate the championship by winning seven titles in a row from 1960-66. Nicklaus said he missed the sensation of teeing off for real at Augusta National.
“It was such a great thrill every time we teed it up to actually play for real and I think we’d all love to wind the clock back a few years and play,” said the Golden Bear. “It’s such a great tournament, a great thrill to stand on the first tee, have the butterflies and get that first tee shot over and get going.”