By MIKE ANTHONY
Much is made of the power and emotion of the Sunday roars at Augusta National, but it’s often the quieter accomplishments in front of fewer patrons early in the week that set the stage for the late drama.
While many of golf’s biggest stars provided fireworks on Thursday – with players like Tiger Woods, Brooks Koepka and Rickie Fowler right in the thick of it – there were plenty of unexpected names nearing the top of a crowded leaderboard after the first 18 holes of play.
As much as any golf course can be a living, breathing animal to be battled, the tens of thousands of fans in the gallery can be another component that either helps or hurts a player throughout the day. To be sure, any player in any field is already adept at handling the pressure of performing in an already-difficult sport with plenty of eyes and cameras aimed at them, but that pressure can reach a whole new level when those roars and moans are rolling through the pines at Augusta.
While Woods and other top names rode the momentum Thursday of an ocean of fans cheering them every shot of the way, there were several stellar scores that popped up from groupings that were overlooked for much of the day.
As many patrons spread out around the course following the ceremonial tee shots, Corey Conners teed off in the first grouping of the day.
The final player added to the Masters field following his win last week, Conners blazed a trail around Augusta National before many patrons had made it through the gates. Conners carded a solid 2-under 70 and was off the course before many realized that he was among the leaders.
Following Conners just a few groups behind – yet ahead of any of the first big names to hit the course – Justin Harding hit the course at 9:03 a.m. and made the turn at 2-under. Harding birdied No. 17 to reach 4-under before dropping a stroke on the final hole for a 69.
Beginning at 10 a.m. each new group brought about huge names and, in turn, huge crowds. And while the patrons turned out to see the McIlroys and Fowlers and Woods’ of the world, the virtually unknown Cameron Smith stared down the course and the intense interest from the gallery to shoot a 70 that left him in the same solid Thursday night spot as many of the stars that were surrounding him.
Ironically, anyone following tournament-favorite McIlroy around the course ended up turning their back on many of the best shots of the day.
McIlroy, Smith and Fowler were the final group in the big wave of big names. Following each hole, hundreds of patrons would either follow them to the next tee or race a few holes ahead to catch up with defending champion Patrick Reed in the group where the flood of the highest-ranked players began.
Immediately behind McIlroy and company was a group including Patton Kizzire. As the crowd at No. 2 thinned out ahead of him, Kizzire hit the green in two on the par-5 and recorded the first eagle of the day.
Kizzire stayed strong all day and reached 3-under before ending his day at 2-under, often staring at the backs of patrons walking away as he did so.
Once the cut is made and the weekend begins, it will be a bit easier to catch those performances – whether they come from favorites or unknowns – as the top players will be grouped at the end of the day. But Thursday should serve as a lesson for Friday.
It’s fun to see the best players up close, just as it’s fun to take in the most famous holes on the course at Augusta. But at the Masters, everything and everyone is worth a bit of your attention.
Mike Anthony is sports editor for the Statesboro Herald, a Morris Multimedia property in Statesboro, Ga.