Rose Blooms Among the Azaleas at Augusta National
England's Justin Rose bloomed among the azaleas and dogwood of Augusta National - opening and closing with a pair of birdies - for a five under par 67 to ensure a bright start to the 2004 Masters Tournament for The European Tour's record contingent. Although 18 players have still to compete their first rounds on Friday morning, none can match Rose's opening score.
A mid-afternoon electrical storm in Augusta forced a two hour suspension in play, and although the players returned to the course at 6.15pm, only 90 minutes of play was possible before darkness fell.
The leaderboard, though, looks decidely healthy from a European perspective, with Northern Ireland's Darren Clarke tied for fourth after a round of 70 and Germany's Bernhard Langer, Phillip Price of Wales and Scotland's Colin Montgomerie sharing eighth after 71s.
Germany's Alex Cejka and Ernie Els of South Africa both completed 17 holes before the klaxon sounded at 7.45pm, local time. Both were two under par and in good shape for the second round.
"I am where I want to be at this stage" said Els, despite a bogey at the 17th. "It's certainly better than last year when I opened with a 77."
Meanwhile Rose, who finished tied for 39th on his Masters Tournament debut last year, went to the turn in 33 and dropped his only shot of the first round with a three putt from 15 feet at the 11th, now elongated to a testing 490 yard par four.
However the two-time winner on The European Tour International Schedule re-grouped and played a wonderful bunker shot to four feet at the 13th for a birdie four and created an even better recovery approach bent round trees at the 14th to escape with a par.
Rose then safely negotiated the 15th and 16th in pars before finishing with a flourish, holing putts from ten feet on the 17th and six feet at the last for his sixth birdie of an accomplished effort – four strokes better than his previous best round in the third round a year ago.
Rose, who has been in the United States for the last two months, admitted: “Obviously I had the dream start, going birdie-birdie gets you into the tournament right from the start. I crushed my drive on the first hole and felt really comfortable after that.
“I have been hitting the ball well but not getting the scores. I has been coming, though, and I am really pleased it came today! I three putted twice, at the eighth and 11th but my only real complaint was the one on the 11th. I didn’t give the green enough respect.
“I was pleased that I stuck with my game plan and didn’t let a small mistake get to me and, of course, had that wonderful finish. I’ve been out here working hard with David Leadbetter and he was happy with my swing and said it was just a case of letting it flow.”
As play was suspended, Rose held a two stroke lead over Americans Jay Haas and the Englishman's playing partner, Chris DiMarco, who both shot 69s.
Rose's sterling effort was lauded by someone who knows his way around Augusta - three time past winner, Nick Faldo, who said: "That was very, very good by Justin. If you get in the right mode and think of making birdie it comes off for you, but if you are thinking about making par it's not so easy."
That final reference was to Faldo's own score, a four over par 76 including a solitary birdie at the 16th. He added: "I played poorly and didn't really do anything right. The 13th was a big kick in the teeth for me, putting for birdie and walking off with a bogey."
Clarke, the first round leader 12 months ago before finishing tied 28th, played "a conservative, sensible round of golf" to claim a healthy position just behind the leaders.
"I played very nicely all day and made very few mistakes" said Clarke. "My putter was cold, to say the least, but this is Augusta and I shot two under and I am happy enough with that".
Europe's Ryder Cup Captain, Langer, opened with a bogey but showed he still has a fine appreciation of Augusta's nuances by reclaiming that lost shot at the third and birdieing the 11th and 12th to move to two under par. However a bogey at the 17th cost him the chance to join Clarke on 70, while Montgomerie dropped a stroke at the 18th to miss out on a similar opportunity.
Sandy Lyle, the Champion in 1988, did his best to prove that he cannot yet be considered as a ceremonial golfer, shooting a level par 72 partnered by two former winners Tommy Aaron and Charles Coody, who signed for 87 and 88 respectively.
The 46 year old Scot endured the same scenario last year and after playing with golfers in their late sixties, admitted: “I thought it was the starting list from 2003! I couldn’t believe it. I am not going to argue, though. It makes me look like Tiger Woods knocking it 50 yards past my playing partners!”
Two over par after five holes, Lyle struck back with birdies at the ninth and 11th to get round in level par, a fine opening effort in his bid to make the halfway cut for the first time since 1999.
Padraig Harrington of Ireland, runner-up behind Adam Scott in The Players Championship a fortnight ago, dropped two strokes in the closing five holes for a round of 74.
As Scott struggled to the turn in 41 - one more than three-time Masters Champion, Tiger Woods - Harrington had to battle to get round in two over par.
"It was a bit disappointing to drop two shots coming home" said the Irishman. "I had been hanging in nicely up to then. You just try not to play yourself out of it on the first day and it would have been nice to have been a few better."
Courtesy of www.europeantour.com