Gusty conditions blew the big names in the 81st Masters field right back into William McGirt’s hands.
McGirt, a 37-year-old Masters rookie, fired a 3-under 69 to sit in second place after Thursday’s first round, four shots behind Charley Hoffman, who birdied four of the final five holes to finish at 7-under.
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“I was not upset to see it blowing,” said McGirt, who lives in Spartanburg. “I love it when it plays tough. I’m not the kind of person that’s going to get in a shootout with anybody. If it’s going to be 20‑, 22‑under par, then I’m playing for about 15th.”
McGirt, whose only previous PGA win is the 2016 Memorial Tournament victory that qualified him for this year’s Masters, had one bogey and three birdies. He was one of two players with fewer than two bogeys Thursday.
“I know what my limitations are,” McGirt said. “I’m not the guy that’s going to stand out there and try to hit it over the trees on 13. I kind of plod my way around the golf course and take what it gives me. I’m not the kind of guy that’s going to go out and shoot a ton of 62s and 63s, but I’m going to go out and shoot a lot of 68s and 69s, and over the course of the year, I think that’s going to do pretty well.”
McGirt went into the Masters interview room as the tournament leader but lost that lead while he was talking, thanks to Hoffman’s blistering finish. The 40-year-old playing in his fourth career Masters birdied Nos. 14, 15, 16 and 17 and just missed a birdie on 18 to card a 7-under 65. He and McGirt were ranked Nos. 52 and 53, respectively, in the world entering the tournament.
“A little bit lucky,” said Hoffman, who carded nine birdies and two bogeys. “Fortunate I put myself in spots to be able to make putts. Doesn’t mean you’re going to make them out here. I was able to make some longer putts, which you’re just trying to die it up there close to the hole, and they were able to go in. And, obviously, very happy with the end result.”
World No. 1 Dustin Johnson withdrew before teeing off Thursday because of a back injury suffered Wednesday. Lee Westwood is in third place at 2-under. Charleston’s Russell Henley, Phil Mickelson, Justin Rose, Jason Dufner and Sergio Garcia all sat in a group tied for fourth at 1-under. The scoring average was the second-highest for the first round of the Masters after only 2007.
The wind blew all day and gusted as high as 40 mph at times. Flags snapped tight and went slack the next moment, tree tops traced out large loops, leaves tumbled down fairways and sand blew out of bunkers in plumes. Not everyone was as happy to see it as McGirt.
“Well, it was weird, like through nine holes it was like, you know, it’s not terrible, you can still make birdies,” said Aiken’s Kevin Kisner, who is tied for 27th at 2-over, “but then, when I was on about 14, I thought they might pull us off. I noticed guys in front of us, their ball was rolling. Those gusts an hour ago were as big as I’ve ever played in. Felt like British Open gusts.”
McGirt was just happy to be there in any conditions.
“When I heard, ‘Fore, please, William McGirt now driving,’ I almost shed a tear, but I realized I had to get up there and I had 40 seconds to hit it, so I better get it done quick,” he said. “I didn’t want to get out there and not be able to get the ball to sit on the tee or not be able to get the driver to sit still. I’ve tried to do everything I could to prepare myself, but I was very calm today. Surprisingly.”