Jacksonville Sports Day

GOLF: Hoffman Takes Charge for First-Round Lead at Masters

Charley Hoffman has had his fair share of great rounds of golf in his 12-year PGA Tour career, but it’s safe to say that the performance he put together in the opening round of The Masters Tournament on Thursday was his best ever.

Hoffman, a four-time winner on PGA Tour, birdied eight of the final 13 holes in blustery and cold conditions to forge to a 7-under-par 65 and grab the first-round lead at the famed Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Ga.

Hoffman’s nine-birdie barrage granted him a four-stroke lead over William McGirt (69), with Lee Westwood of England another stroke back in third after a 70.

McGirt, a 37-year-old journeyman player who earned a spot at this year’s Masters with his first tour victory last year at the Memorial, birdied four holes and had only one bogey. Westwood, meanwhile, birdied five consecutive holes on the back-nine to move into third place.

Russell Henley — who was the last qualifier for this tournament when he won the Houston Open last Sunday — Sergio Garcia of Spain, Phil Mickelson, 2016 Olympic gold medalist Justin Rose of England, Jason Dufner, Andy Sullivan of England, Kevin Chappell and Matthew Fitzpatrick of England are another stroke back in an eight-way tie for fourth place.

Eight more players — including world No. 2 Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland and 47-year-old Ernie Els of South Africa — are at even-par.

World No. 1 player Dustin Johnson was forced to withdraw from the event just prior to his afternoon tee time after falling down a short flight of stairs in his rental house and landing on his elbow and back. Johnson tried to warm up and even made a truncated move toward the first tee, but turned around and headed off the course.

Hoffman is holding the largest lead after the first round since the 1955 Masters, when Jack Burke Jr. opened with 67 and was four shots ahead of Julius Boros and Mike Souchak. Burke then shot a 76 in the second round and Cary Middlecoff won.

“Everything was going in,” Hoffman said. “I had good number into the greens and good looks and was able to make some birdies. Obviously seeing the ball go in the hole gives me a lot of confidence. I was just hitting my spots — I’ve learned from the past that you can’t be tentative with these greens, you can’t be afraid to knock putts three feet past the hole.”

Hoffman alternated between bogeys and birdies on the third, fourth, fifth and sixth holes before really finding his groove with consecutive birdies on the par-5 eighth and the par-4 ninth, making the turn in 2 under. He then birdied the daunting par-3 12th hole, made even more so by the swirling winds, and then managed par on the 13th after hitting his second shot into the water that fronts the green.

Hoffman then took the course by the throat with four straight birdies on holes 14-17. His score was more than 10 strokes better than the field average on this first day of competition. Only 11 players broke par Thursday.

“Yeah, it’s a solid day, really,” said the 22-year-old Fitzpatrick, who in 2013 became the first Englishman to win the U.S. Amateur since Harold Hilton in 1911.

“It’s easy to place yourself out of it on a day like today. You come in with a 78 or 79 and before you know it, you’re battling to make the cut and compete. The thing around here, you’ve just got to be so patient, and every shot you’ve got to think about it … you’ve got to always be switched on.”

Hoffman is familiar with playing well at Augusta National; he was in the penultimate group in the final round in 2015 but shot 74 and ended up 10 shots behind winner Jordan Spieth. He’s record a second- and a fourth-place finish here.

“I just step on this property and it feels special,” Hoffman said. “It fits my eye from the tee and on the green.”

Fred Couples, defending Masters champion Danny Willett, Rickie Fowler and Justin Thomas are among seven players at 1 over, eight shots behind Hoffman. Jason Day of Australia and Spieth, the world’s No. 3 and 6 players, respectively, shot 75s, while Hideki Matsuyama of Japan, the world No. 4, struggled to a 76 and Henrik Stenson of Sweden, No. 5 in the world, carded a 77.

NOTES: Nineteen players are making their initial appearances at the Masters and five amateurs are in the field. Eighteen winners of this tournament are also in the field and 31 of the 94 players in the field have won since Willett did last year at Augusta National. … Reigning PGA Tournament champion Jimmy Walker and two-time Masters winner Bubba Watson played as a twosome (and will do so on Friday) after Johnson’s withdrawal. … Ten of the past 11 winners of this event have been within four stokes of the lead after the first round. Only William McGirt would fit that pattern after this year’s first round. … Gary Player of South Africa owns the most starts in Masters history (52).

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