Singh atop the leaderboard in revamped Masters

By Doug Ferguson the associated press

AUGUSTA, Ga. – In his office overlooking a super-sized golf course, Masters chairman Hootie Johnson must have been smiling.

For all the dread that the latest changes to Augusta National went over the top, the Masters had a familiar look yesterday, starting with Vijay Singh atop the leaderboard.

The former Masters champion fired off three straight birdies on the back nine for a 5-under 67, his best start in this tournament and a round he felt was long overdue.

There was a surprise, as always, in Rocco Mediate (68), and another strong debut by a Masters rookie, this time from Arron Oberholser (69). For sentimental value, look no further than 54-year-old Ben Crenshaw, whose short game carried him to a 71, his best round on this course since he closed with a 68 to win his second green jacket 11 years ago.

Tiger Woods had to settle for a 72, no change there since he has never broken 70 in the first round.

“This is probably one of the better rounds I’ve played out here,” Singh said.

Johnson heard plenty of criticism in the days leading up to the Masters, particularly the extra length on the par-3 fourth (240 yards), the tree-lined seventh (450 yards) and the frightening 11th hole, which measures 505 yards and has a dozen more pine trees planted down the right side of the fairway.

Singh had a simple two-putt from just off the back of the green at No. 4, hit 7-iron into 20 feet for birdie on the seventh and made one of only two birdies – Mediate had the other – on No. 11 by carving a 5-iron around a tree and into 10 feet.

The result was a one-shot lead and a shot of confidence he badly needed – he hasn’t won since August.

“I don’t know if it was easier,” Singh said. “I think the golf course was pretty tough from the get-go. If you don’t hit good shots, you’re going to make a number out there.”

And there were plenty of those.

A dozen players, young and old, couldn’t break 80, and at least eight players had their worst score ever at the Masters, including David Duval (84), Mark O’Meara (81) and Mark Calcavecchia (89).

“I didn’t struggle with my game at all,” Singh said.

That’s what Johnson wanted when he ordered the latest round of changes to the course. He had six holes lengthened, hopeful that even the modern player with his modern equipment would be hitting similar clubs as Masters champions did in the past.

It still was tough, as a major should be.

Only three players broke 70, and 15 others were under par. But the scoring average for the first round – 74.94 – was a fraction of a stroke lower than the previous two years.

“I don’t think anybody will be unhappy with the way the course played today,” Retief Goosen said after a 70, joined by Phil Mickelson, Tim Clark and Geoff Ogilvy.