AUGUSTA, Ga. — Bryson DeChambeau finally located his tee shot in the pine straw left of the fairway on the 14th hole at Augusta National on Thursday.
Brawny Bryson turned his head and asked no one in particular, “That caught a tree obviously, right?”
Yes, that one and quite a few more of DeChambeau’s tee shots did find lumber or something else besides fairways in the opening round of the Masters.
DeChambeau, the betting favorite entering the first Masters ever played in November, couldn’t keep his ball in the fairway and didn’t do much better on the greens.
His wild ride through the first 18 holes, which included back-to-back birdies on the final two holes to apply some salve to his wounds, led to an opening-round score of 2-under 70.
The disappointing start certainly didn’t knock him out of contention with 54 holes still to play, but it wasn’t exactly what he had in mind. Especially not after he suggested earlier this week that he planned to set himself a par course of 67– five shots below the actual 72 — because his newly found length off the tee would allow him to reach each of the par 5s in two shots.
A day after Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley said the sport was “at a crossroads as it relates to the distance issue,” DeChambeau’s booming and violent drives weren’t as much of an advantage as maybe he and others had believed.
“This golf course, as much as I’m trying to attack it, you know it can bite back,” DeChambeau said. “It’s still Augusta National and it’s still the Masters. It’s an amazing test of golf, no matter what way you play it.”
After a three-hour delay because of inclement weather, which dumped about two inches of rain on the course, DeChambeau actually started conservatively, hitting a 3-wood off the 10th tee, his first hole of the day. He knocked his second shot about 6 feet past the hole, but then missed a downhill slider for birdie and settled for par.
There were warning signs as early as the par-4 11th, when he yanked his tee shot into the woods down the left side of the fairway. He found his ball and scrambled to save par with a 13-footer.
After a par at the 12th, his aggressive plan backfired mightily. On the par-5 13th, he bounced his tee shot high off a tree and into the pine straw down the right side. For a few moments, DeChambeau debated whether to lay up and play for a birdie — or to try to reach the green from 194 yards in the hopes of an eagle.
His ball sat near the same spot from where Phil Mickelson famously knocked his ball on the green during the final round in 2010 en route to winning a third green jacket.
It didn’t go nearly as well for DeChambeau, who pulled his shot way left and into the azaleas above the bunkers protecting the green. Even worse, he hit a provisional shot — in case they couldn’t find the ball from the first shot — and knocked it into a flowing tributary of Rae’s Creek.
DeChambeau was fortunate that his caddie, Tim Tucker, found his first ball buried in the azaleas. He was forced to take a drop for an unplayable lie, failed to get up and down, and settled for a double-bogey.
“At the end of the day, I should have been smarter and hit it out and took my medicine,” he said. “I’m greedy. Sometimes I get a little greedy, and I like taking risks. You’ve got to take risks to win tournaments.”
For a long time on Thursday, it seemed like DeChambeau’s aggression was going to cost him any chance of possibly winning back-to-back major championships, after he won the U.S. Open by six shots in September.
After flirting with the idea of using a 48-inch driver, the longest allowed under the Rules of Golf, he stuck with the 45 ½-inch version. He had enough problems with the shorter one. He averaged 334.6 yards from the tee, but found only eight of 14 fairways.
“Not great, not my best,” DeChambeau said of his driving. “I got a little, I guess you could say, tight. I wasn’t comfortable with my golf swing. Normally, when I’m really comfortable with my golf swing, I can keep going faster and faster. I just have to figure out what’s going on, why I’m a little too far left.”
There were still a couple of head-turning moments from Brawny Bryson. After he hit a 346-yard drive on the par-5, 530-yard 15th hole, he hit a 7-iron to the green. Playing partner Louis Oosthuizen joked that they both used a 7-club; the South African’s was a 7-wood.
On the par-4, 495-yard fifth hole, DeChambeau smashed a 347-yard drive down the fairway. His ball ended up nearly 90 yards farther than five-time Masters champion Tiger Woods‘ tee shot a couple of groups later.
“Luckily for us, he wasn’t very straight on the first few holes,” said Spaniard Jon Rahm, who also played with DeChambeau. “The trees were stopping his balls, and he was kind of par with us. There were a couple of them that were reality checks.”
Rahm, who shot 3-under 69, credited DeChambeau’s short game and scrambling ability for saving his round.
“It’s a different golf course, but I think [Thursday] proves no matter how far you hit it, you’ve still got to make putts,” Rahm said.
If you don’t believe Rahm, consider this: DeChambeau averaged 334.6 yards off the tee; 62-year-old Larry Mize averaged 247.4. They both shot 70 in Thursday’s first round.