The Masters: Bryson DeChambeau leads way as world number one Scottie Scheffler makes strong early case

Rory McIlroy has steady one-under opening round on difficult, wind-delayed first day at Augusta National

Rory McIlroy hung tough, which was no bad thing at all if truth be told; as the Northern Irishman – forced to view an up-close and personal exhibition from world number one Scottie Scheffler in the opening round of the 88th edition of the Masters tournament – managed to avoid any ruinous big numbers in compiling a first round 71, six shots adrift of clubhouse leader Bryson DeChambeau.

Scheffler, though, was the man very much in McIlroy’s vision. Time, and time again. And the effortless manner in which Scheffler went about constructing a bogey-free 66 – to lie one behind DeChambeau – was what caught the Northern Irishman’s attention.

“It’s hard not to notice. Scottie does such a good job of (scoring). It doesn’t look like it’s six-under par, and then at the end of the day it’s six-under par. He’s just so efficient with everything,” admitted McIlroy, adding:

“If you look at Scottie compared to the rest of the field, the amount of bogey-free rounds he plays and he shoots is phenomenal, and that’s the secret to winning Major championships and winning big-time golf tournaments is more limiting the mistakes rather than making a ton of birdies. I made three bogeys, which is fine out there in these conditions, but I just need to tidy it up a little bit to try to keep up with him.”


McIlroy’s sub-par round at least ensured that he hadn’t scuppered any title ambitions from the get-go. Since an opening round 69 in 2018 (when he finished tied-fifth), his first-round efforts of 73-75-76-73-72 have left him chasing in vain. His best ever first round was back in 2011 – a 65 – where he led through 54-holes only to falter to a closing 80 (in tied-15th) that has left him seeking to heal the mental scars ever since. He also avoided any of those hugely costly double-bogeys which afflicted him at the Players last month.

The wind, gusting at times and swirling at times, caused players and caddies to deliberate on club selection and shot execution, which led to five-and-a-half-hour rounds. And with the start delayed by two and a half hours due to a storm, the upshot was that not everyone – among them Shane Lowry and Tiger Woods – managed to finish their rounds as fading light brought the sound of the siren to call a halt. Nine groupings, 27 players, were left with unfinished business to be completed Friday.

Lowry was level par through 16, where a seven-footer birdie putt stubbornly stayed on the high side, when his day’s work was brought to a halt, while Woods – forced to play an extremely limited schedule due to his physical health – was one-under through 13 holes.

Defending champion Jon Rahm cut a frustrated figure, with some untypical wild driving, as he opened his defence with a 73. And European Ryder Cup player Nicolai Hojgaard of Denmark was five-under through 15 holes.

McIlroy’s round – four birdies, three bogeys – was one where he got a couple of lucky ricochets off trees on wayward drives. “You sort of need to ride your luck a little bit here and there, but hopefully I don’t need to get any lucky bounces from here on out, and hopefully I can just keep hitting fairways”, said McIlroy, who moved on to the driving range post-round anticipating another windy day for the second round.

It’s important to kind of keep that momentum of the round going. And I felt like today, when I was in some challenging spots on some tough holes, I did a good job of pitching it up there nice and close

—  Scottie Scheffler

Scheffler came into the first Major of the year as the hot favourite, on a run of 1st-1st-2nd in his last three tournament outings which included a win in last month’s The Players.

Of being the only player to sign for a bogey-free card and muscling to one strokes of DeChambeau, Scheffler remarked: “Limiting your mistakes is important. It’s important to kind of keep that momentum of the round going. And I felt like today, when I was in some challenging spots on some tough holes, I did a good job of pitching it up there nice and close. I typically expect a lot out of myself. And so when things aren’t going the way that they are supposed to be, especially when I was younger, I would get pretty frustrated. And I try to manage myself a lot better than I did back then, and, you know, I’m seeing some good results of that.

“But days like today, I mean, it’s very easy to say, ‘hey, stay patient, don’t make too many mistakes out there’, all that stuff, yada yada yada. But all it comes down is hitting good shots and manage your way around the golf course, and I think it’s a lot easier said than done for sure.”

Scheffler’s error-free round still left him playing catchup, one shot behind DeChambeau who finally found a way to shine at Augusta National.

DeChambeau’s efforts of the past around the hallowed, hilly terrain never suggested such a transformation. He shot an opening round 76 in 2021, ultimately finishing tied-46th. In 2022, he opened with a 76 and missed the cut. In 2023, he opened with a 74 and missed the cut.

Yet, here he was, one of those who took the LIV greenbacks, as he strategically worked his way around a course in which the winds swirled through the towering cathedral pines.

We did a lot of pre-stuff before the surgery so we were as strong as possible after the surgery, and that kind of means that you don’t fall too far off

—  Danny Willet

DeChambeau’s beautifully-crafted round of eight birdies and one lone bogey, on the ninth, enabled the 30-year-old American to inveigle a way to the top of the leaderboard. From the get-go, the 2020 US Open champion was on song when, following a 5-wood opening tee-shot, he hit a 145 yards approach to two feet for an opening birdie.

And the sense of surprise wasn’t confined merely to DeChambeau. In the case of Danny Willett, a favoured son who’d won his only Major when donning a green jacket in 2016, the wonders of medical surgery – having undergone a shoulder operation six months ago – enabled to play, his first round since the BMW PGA at Wentworth last September.

Told the recovery period would likely be 12-18 months, Willett – who was required to spend six weeks in a 90-degrees cast that he could only remove to take a shower and four months doing extensive daily rehabilitation that included ice baths, saunas and gym work as well as visiting the medical specialists – marked his earlier than anticipated return to competition with a four-under-par 68, three adrift of DeChambeau.

“It’s unexpected, isn’t it?” remarked Willett of managing to produce such a comeback following his lay-off. “Again, it was never an issue of whether or not the shoulder was strong enough, it was whether or not I could hit the shots I wanted to. I had no idea what to expect, so yeah, it’s obviously always nice to come in having shot a decent score, and just give yourself that little bit of confidence inside and hopefully have a nice few more days.”

He added: “We did a lot of pre-stuff before the surgery so we were as strong as possible after the surgery, and that kind of means that you don’t fall too far off. I had some great people around me, and we did some great work and put the hours in, and again, I could have shot 80 but it was still nice to have the ability to peg up and not be in pain. From where I was seven, eight, nine months ago and previous, to be able to play pain-free is a pretty nice thing.”

With no further weather disruptions in the forecast, although with further windy conditions for Friday’s incomplete first round followed by the second round, DeChambeau – more than anyone – will know there is all yet to play for.

Philip Reid

Philip Reid

Philip Reid is Golf Correspondent of The Irish Times