Somewhere in Heaven Dan Jenkins is smiling, because this is what a major championship leader board is supposed to look like.
Our great lion of a sports writer may be watching his first Masters from Heaven, but the heart of a true golf writer always aches for the greatest names to be in contention, not puzzling strangers. So right now, with five former major champions tied for the lead at 7-under 137 – including the winners of the last three consecutive majors – that’s what anyone would call star power, l;et alone the golf world’s late Literary Lion
After a sizzling, bogey-free 67, reigning Open Champion and Ryder Cup Yankee Killer Francesco Molinari of Italy will play in the final pairing with 2015 PGA Champion Jason Day of Australia, who also fired a six birdies, one bogey 67. They’ll follow 2013 Masters Champion Adam Scott and reigning U.S. Open and PGA Championship winner Brooks Koepka, whose mercurial 1-under 71 which included five birdies, two bogeys, and a double bogey seven at the easy par-5 second hole.
They were joined at 7-under by star-crossed Louis Oosthuizen (pronounced WEST-hay-zen!). The 2010 Open Champion (who has also had a double eagle and a hole-in-one at Augusta) carded sizzling 66 that included seven birdies. Every player at 7-under has won at least one major and, collectively, they have won all four titles. Koepka is on a hot streak similar to Padraig Harrington in 2007-08, taking three titles in the last two calendar years, including back-to-back U.S. Opens.
The quartet of players one shot back at 6-under includes the ubiquitous Tiger Woods, (70-68=138), winner of four Green Jackets and 14 majors overall, and 2016 U.S. Open Champion Dustin Johnson, (68-70=138). They are joined by Justin Harding, who birdied five of the last seven holes, including four in a row at 12-15 and rising star Xander Schauffele whose 65 was the round of the rainy day.
England’s Ian Poulter and Spain’s John Rahm are two back at 5-under, while three time champion Phil Mickelson lurks three shots back at 4-under, along with Matt Kuchar, Charles Howell III, and Patton Kizzire.
Most American fans and media are wishing for a respire of Woods and Koepka’s battle at last year’s PGA Championship – “linebacker vs. linebacker” based on their affinity for lifting and rippling muscles, although Koepka dropped 20 pounds to join his wife in a magazine shoot.
“Trying new underwear. Losing 20 lbs. Wearing Hawaiian print hats. Probably buying a convertible. That’s not your dad in midlife crisis. That’s Brooks Koepka,” quipped Golf News Net’s Ryan Ballengee.
Others relish the possibility of Molinari and Woods squaring off in a reprise of the final round of last year’s Open Championship and a possible Ryder Cup tete-a-tete in 2020. Either way, the golf media is letting Woods drive the tournament story lines.
Among all those marquis names atop the leaderboard lurks Adam Scott, who although he’s the only one besides Tiger to own a Green Jacket, has been the quiet, workmanlike man among the leaders to everyone except a crowd of seven players at 3-under. They all get to play the weekend, because Scott missing a twisting 13-foot putt on 18 that would have given him the oiutright lead and moved the cut line to 2-over. Top 50 players plus everyone within ten shots of the lead make the cut at the Masters, setting the stage for a record number this year: 65
And in what could set the stage for a Jack Nicklaus-esque miracle, 61-year young Bernhardt Langer, the 1985 and 1993 Masters Champion, made the cut at 1-under, just six shots behind the leaders.
“I’m 40 yards behind everybody,” Langer said. “I’m hitting a 4 iron and they’re hitting a 9 iron. I would rather hit a 9 iron and have a little less experience.”
I’m not sure that’s true, however, as he’s hit 25 of 28 fairways off the tee. It also prves true the old saw about the golf course; when you play Augusta National well, you play it well for the rest of your life. That’s yet another reason why Woods is still in contention: He’s the wily veteran and he knows the course as well as Nicklaus ever did.
“I missed a few putts out there but I’m not too bummed out about it because I hit them on my lines. So I can live with that. I can live with days when I’m hitting putts on my line and they just don’t go in, that’s the way it goes,” Woods observed. “But I also made some distance putts there at 9, 14, 15, those were, they were nice to make and if I keep hitting the putts on my line, they will start dropping.”
Tiger Woods’s round came dangerously close to coming to a screeching halt when an overzealous security guard ran to stop patrons from crowding the golfer, when he slipped, fell, and clipped Woods’s right ankle. Woods winced and limped a little, but them went on to birdie that hole and the next for good measure.
“Man, am I really glad he made birdie,” said the officer after the incident.
“I’m fine. It’s all good,” Woods explained after the round. “Accidents happen and move on.”
Meanwhile, ftrst round leader Bryson dechambeau followed his opening 66 with a ghastly 75. He’s part of a fivesome at 3-under that also includes Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler.
And so as we turn to the weekend, the leader board looks like a Who’s Who of modern golf royalty, something that everyone, especially Dan Jenkins would delight in. Although he’s not here with us, Augusta National and the golf writers honored him, first with a remembrance at Fred Ridley’s yearly State of the Masters press conference on Wednesday, and again with a tribute in the press tent of an empty seat, graced by Jenkins’s Hogan cap and other memorabilia. The club even left his parking space for him, his name on the plaque. Like a beloved family member in the tradition of Buddhist Tibetans, the place stays empty, awaiting his return.