AUGUSTA, GA. – Augusta National and the Masters have done their part to grow the game, hosting events for children and women, but the green jackets outdid themselves with Southern hospitality on Thursday, when the too-na-ment did all it could to promote Minnesota golf.
Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka shot 6-under-par 66s to share the first-round lead and Phil Mickelson shot a 67 to hold third place. All three have committed to play in the inaugural 3M Open at TPC Twin Cities, and all will bring a compelling story north whether they win this week or not.
On a pristine day at Augusta National, a slew of players charged up the leaderboard in the afternoon, creating a swirl of delicious and diverse story lines. The top five players included three majors winners (Koepka, Mickelson and Dustin Johnson), a Ryder Cup hero (Ian Poulter) and the sixth-ranked player in the world (DeChambeau).
Think of the different classes in which each would have excelled.
Science: DeChambeau is known as golf’s mad scientist. He recently spent 14 consecutive hours at Dallas National Golf Club trying to find the perfect shaft for his wedges. When his 6-iron approach on 18 hit the flagstick but bounced away, he lamented having produced too much “terminal velocity.”
He birdied six of the last seven holes, almost acing the 16th for what he said would have been the first ace of his life.
“What a magical back nine,” DeChambeau said.
Biology: Koepka lifts weights like a football player. He has won three of the past seven majors, then went on a diet while intensifying his workouts, causing him to lose 24 pounds. At The Players Championship, he complained about feeling “out of sorts” and losing power.
Whatever he ate Thursday morning is about to be proclaimed a super food. Koepka birdied four consecutive holes on the back nine to position himself to win a fourth major in eight starts.
According to Justin Ray of 15th Club, since the beginning of the Masters in 2017, Koepka ranks first in majors in scoring average, rounds led or co-led and birdies and eagles. If he wins this week, he will have won four majors and two other PGA Tour events.
Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee said he thought Koepka was self-sabotaging his career by preparing his abs for Sports Illustrated’s Body Issue. “Well, I lift all the time,” Koepka said. “I lift too many weights, and I’m too big to play golf. And then when I lose weight, I’m too small. So I don’t know. I don’t know what to say. I’m too big and too small.”
History: Mickelson, at 48 years and 10 months old, is trying to become the oldest player ever to win a major. Thursday, the three-time Masters champion played the last seven holes in 5 under, matching DeChambeau with a near-ace at 16.
“I thought there were some 66s out there,” Mickelson said. “Look, the greens are softer than they’ve ever been, and they’re not as fast as they normally are. So [Thursday was] a day to take advantage of that.”
He was joined in history class by Tiger Woods, 43, who briefly tied for the lead and finished tied for 11th at 2 under. Three other times Woods started the Masters with a 70, he won the tournament. “I’ve shot this number and won four coats,” he said. “Hopefully I can do it again.”
English: Ian Poulter, the 43-year-old Brit, has never won a major despite finishing in the top 10 eight times. Dominant in Ryder Cups, he has never finished in the top five at the Masters.
“I’m here to have fun,” he said. “Someone said as a 43-year old, I have a 3% chance to win. Tiger has better than a 3% chance, but he’s a lot better than I am. I’ve got a couple of friends in town, so I’m just going to go out and enjoy myself.”
Phy Ed: Dustin Johnson is Koepka’s workout partner and used to be able to execute 360-degree dunks. He might be the best athlete in golf and the game’s best ball-striker, and he is not burdened with a cluttered mind. Johnson is tied for fourth with Poulter at 4 under.
The top five on the Masters leaderboard offer a smorgasbord of personalities: A geek, a couple of jocks, a peacocky Brit and a guy with a Dad bod trying to make history.
And a few of them are heading to Blaine in July.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at TalkNorth.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. firstname.lastname@example.org