Rory McIlroy hauled himself back into Masters contention with a brilliant back nine of 33 following Dustin Johnson’s shock withdrawal on an eventful opening day at the 81st Masters.
McIlroy sits seven back from Charley Hoffman, who strung together an outrageous seven-under 65, said by some to be the ‘round of the year’ so far.
In-form world No.1 Johnson withdrew after being unable to fully swing the club, leaving McIlroy and Jordan Spieth, the joint favourites, the opportunity to make a charge for the green jacket.
McIlroy, three-over at the turn, came alive on Augusta’s back nine with birdies at 13, 15 and 16 to drag himself back into the mix.
As it looked like his Masters dream might be fading, the Northern Irishman got a lucky break on 13 when his ball looked to be heading for the water. It stayed up and he instead walked off with a birdie, and the momentum.
“It was a huge bonus,” he said of that moment. “I’m not complaining. I know I did my best out there and I gritted it out. I would have ripped someone’s hand off for a 72 on the tenth tee.”
McIlroy then clawed back shots at 15 and 16. He signed for brilliantly battling level par 72.
Asked about Hoffman’s 65, Rory said: “Holy shit. That’s unbelievable. That’s incredible.”
He then added: “To see what he did over the last six or seven holes was incredible golf. I’m walking off there after my start ecstatic with a 72 and he is walking off with a 65, but as they say they don’t give green jackets out on Thursdays and there is no winning post there.”
Also hoping to take advantage of Johnston’s unfortunate situation was Spieth - but his charge never quite happened as the 2015 champ carded an adventurous three-over 75, which included a nine at the 15th.
On a tough day when winds gusted to as much as 40mph - described by Adam Scott as “almost unplayable” - it was world No.52 Hoffman who grabbed the headlines, describing his round as a “little bit lucky”.
“I step on this property and it just feels special,” said Hoffman, who has never finished worse than 29th in three appearances at Augusta. “It fits my eye. Seeing the ball go in the hole is something special.
“I’ve been working hard on my putting. I learned from the past that you can’t be tentative on these greens. It was fun.
“I’ve slept on leads before. Will I sleep well? Probably not.”
Lee Westwood, chasing his first major and playing in the group behind Hoffman, had five birdies in a row on the back nine for a two-under 70 and a share of third. That birdie trail turned his day around.
“Really got some momentum going. Got me back in the tournament,” said Westwood, who was joint runner-up last year. “Obviously, three‑over-par through 12, you would absolutely love it if you ended up two‑under.”
Spieth, who is ten back and was speaking before Hoffman had finished, said he’s not out of it.
“So I’m going to probably need to play something under par tomorrow, which puts a little bit extra pressure that I wouldn’t have put on tomorrow, because I was thinking even par for the two days was a good score. And obviously now three‑over, I feel like I need to snag something tomorrow.”
Walking onto the 12th tee – where his Masters dream collapsed last year in dramatic fashion – Spieth got a huge roar from the crowd.
“I was a bit surprised at how loud the cheer was when my ball landed about 35 feet away from the hole,” he said. “I ripped one… I was relieved to see it down and on the green.”
Defending champion Danny Willett opened with a double-bogey but steadied the ship for one-over 73 to be one of six English inside the top-25.
“When I was stood on the third tee, if someone had said I would shoot 73 I would have ripped their hand off and walked up the hill and gone inside and had a cup of tea,” said Willett.
“It was a less than ideal start, not what I had envisaged the last 12 months starting out my defence, but I fought back really well, dug my heels in and hit some really good golf shots.”