Former Auburn player two shots back after solid round
by Al Muskewitz
Apr 06, 2012 | 3125 views |  0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
AUGUSTA, Ga. — Jason Dufner is so comfortable in his own skin these days, any time he steps on the first tee he believes he’s going to have a good round.

That goes for whether it’s a regular event or a major.

The former Auburn player couldn’t have played much better Thursday, shooting a 3-under-par 69 in soft, scoreable conditions and is in a group of six players just two shots off Lee Westwood’s first-round lead in the 76th Masters.

Westwood shot 67 and held a one shot lead over Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa and Peter Hanson of Sweden.

On a day where soft conditions helped jumble the leaderboard, 44 players shot par or better and 28 players are within four shots of the lead. The rain that fell just as Dufner was coming off the course and resumed overnight was expected to soften the course even more for today’s round.

The two tournament favorites, Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods, shot 71 and 72, respectively. Defending champion Charl Schwartzel also shot 72 and fan favorite Phil Mickelson shot 74.

Dufner, 35, has flourished on the big stage, at least recently. In his last major, he held a share of the second- and third-round leads at the PGA Championship and had a five-shot lead in the final round before losing in a playoff to Keegan Bradley. He also finished tied for fifth in the 2010 PGA and was T-30 here last year.

His start couldn’t have been better. He nearly holed a “pretty comfortable” 6-iron from 188 yards on No. 1 and started the day birdie-birdie. He birdied three of the four par-5s. It’s not supposed to be that easy, especially in majors.

“I just don’t see it that way,” he said. “I’m not too nervous about it. Maybe someday it’ll be a little bit more different. I’ve played in a good bit of these. I don’t have as much experience as some players, but I’m getting to the point where I feel good.

“These golf courses are set up tough, obviously, for majors. It’s a different challenge, and that’s how I look at it. It’s a good challenge for me, it’s a good challenge for the field and it’s a good challenge to see where mine game’s going.”

Henrik Stenson looked like he might run away with the first-round lead until his monumental collapse on the final hole.

The 36-year-old Swede took a record-tying 8 on the last and went from the lead to off the board – on his 36th birthday, no less.

Stenson had never broken 70 in 18 career rounds and made only three cuts in appearances, but was on a record pace through the front nine.

He eagled both par-5s on the front and turned in 5-under. A birdie at 10 got him to 6-under. He was at 5-under when he reached 18.

It was a McIlroy 2011 collapse in reverse. McIlroy came to the back nine of last year’s final round holding a one-shot lead, then rifled his drive off the trees back toward the cabins. He was out of the hunt by 13.

On this day, Stenson bogeyed 14, hit a bad drive on 15 but chipped in for birdie, three-putted for a “clumsy” bogey on 16, missed a short birdie putt on 17 before reaching the fateful 18th.

“It was very wishy-washy on the back nine,” he said.

He pulled his tee shot into the trees, didn’t get it back out into the fairway, punched his third shot down the fairway and slammed his club in frustration. He hit his pitching wedge from 136 yards over the green, chipped short and three-putted to tie the highest score ever recorded on the hole.

“If you can’t get the ball in play off the tee, you’re going to drop shots,” Stenson said. “Playing out of the forest most of the back nine it’s going to cost a little bit sooner or later. … You make a little mistake and then you compound it with another one and it just keeps on snowballing and I got the snowman in the end.”

As for the leaders, Westwood jumped into contention with four straight birdies on the front.

Second here two years ago after three rounds in the 60s, he birdied 5, 6, 7 and 8 to get to 4-under. He gave a shot back at 10, but got it back on 13, then took the outright lead with a birdie on 17.

Not unusual. He has been par or under in 11 of his last 13 rounds here.

“It’s nice to get off to a good start and have a platform to build on,” he said.

Oosthuizen, who has missed the cut in each of his three previous Masters appearances, birdied four of the last five holes to grab the lead until Westwood birdied 13 to tie him. He had never shot better than 73 in any previous Masters round.

His best friend, Charl Schwartzel, won last year’s Masters by making birdie on each of the last four holes on Sunday.

“I tried to get the four, but I missed the one,” he said. “I was disappointed with 13, hitting my second in the water, but I had an opportunity to save par and just missed an eight-footer. But from there on I still felt very confident. I knew I was hitting it well – especially my irons – and I made a few nice putts coming in.”

Hanson also played a strong back nine. He birdied 11, 12 and 17.

The first potential controversy of the tournament was avoided when it was determined Luke Donald’s 75 was improperly entered in the tournament scoring system as a 73 because a fax machine produced a smudged number. Had the world’s No. 1 ranked player signed for a 73 when shooting a 75 he would have been disqualified.

The error occurred on the par-4 fifth where Donald three-putted for 5, which he acknowledged in post-round remarks, but the score was recorded as 3 in the system because officials read it that way. Augusta National officials described it as an “administrative error.”

Al Muskewitz covers golf for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.

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