AUGUSTA, GA. – Their bellies dogleg. Their foreheads look as if they’ve been mowed closer than an Augusta National green. They are the middle-aged grinders of golf, devoid of major championships or celebrated fitness plans, and on a day of high winds and higher unpredictability, they rose to the top of the Masters leaderboard.
Charley Hoffman, a 40-year-old who wore his hair like a rock star before male pattern baldness encroached, shot a 65 to take a lead of four shots, the largest after one Masters round since Jackie Burke also led by four in 1955. William McGirt, who looks like an extra from “Tin Cup,” shot a 69 to move into second place.
When the world’s top-ranked player and best athlete, Dustin Johnson, withdrew because of a back injury, he opened a wide door for two players who provided a reminder that scorecards don’t care about swing speeds, résumés or abs.
Golf has been dominated for decades by fitness buffs such as Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Johnson. Hoffman and McGirt look like they have pimento cheese running through their veins.
“This is a lifelong dream and it’s one of those things that when you’re going through that, you don’t know if this moment will ever happen,” McGirt said.
Both played mini-tours. Hoffman is playing in his fourth Masters. He teed off in the last group with Jordan Spieth on Saturday in 2015. He’s a veteran who said he needed a pep talk from friends to help him “believe” a couple of months ago. “Oh, belief definitely comes and goes,” he said.
So, too, has it fluctuated for McGirt, who said he might have quit if he had other career options. “But I didn’t,” he said. “So I went back out and practiced some more.”
McGirt was even more obscure before he won the Memorial last year, earning him a place in the Masters for the first time. He admits he can’t count on returning, so he has acted like a tourist at Augusta National, taking in sunrises and sunsets from the majestic clubhouse porch and spending copiously at the merchandise shop.
McGirt had never played Augusta until December. Previously, he had attended the Masters only as a fan, and he remains one. He was one of the few players who got up early Thursday to attend the opening ceremonies that this year became a memorial for Arnold Palmer.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” McGirt said. “I’ve never been here to watch it in person. And with this being the first year without Mr. Palmer, I was not going to miss it.”
Johnson entered the week as the world’s top-ranked and hottest player but says he fell on a slippery wood floor at his rental house Wednesday night. He warmed up on the driving range Thursday and headed to the first tee before peeling off and telling officials he had to withdraw.
“I want to play,” Johnson said. “I’m playing probably the best golf of my career and this is one of my favorite tournaments. To have a freak accident happen [Wednesday] afternoon, it [stinks]. It really does. The issue is I just can’t swing.”
Johnson’s injury became part of an unpredictable day. Of the 11 players who shot 71 or better in the first round, only Sergio Garcia is in the top 11 of the world golf rankings.
McGirt is embracing the oddity. He lives in South Carolina, a two-hour drive from Augusta, and he shook hands with a half-dozen acquaintances during his round.
He once ran into Tiger Woods on a practice green and admitted he had never looked at a scoreboard during a final round. Woods called him an “idiot.” McGirt told him, “Hey, at least we can agree on something.”
McGirt not only looked at the old-school leaderboards Thursday, he laughed with his caddie when his name rose to near the top, on a windy and unpredictable day at the Masters.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at MalePatternPodcasts.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org