Casey leads after best major start with Tiger in the hunt

Augusta (United States) (AFP) –


Paul Casey seized the first-round clubhouse lead of the Masters on Thursday at rain-softened Augusta National while defending champion Tiger Woods showed the form to threaten for a 16th major title.

Casey, a 43-year-old Englishman chasing his first major title, fired a bogey-free seven-under par 65 -- matching his career-low from 218 major rounds.

"I've put a lot of work in to play this golf course and it has paid off," Casey said.

"You can stick the ball on the green and make the putt. I did a good job of leaving the ball on the right side of the hole and making the putt."

Woods took full advantage of attackable conditions after three-quarters of an inch of rain and a storm delay of nearly three hours, delivering his first bogey-free Masters round since 2008 to share fourth on 68.

"I did everything well today," Woods said. "The greens were soft. You have to seize your opportunities out there and take advantage."

Seventh-ranked Webb Simpson, the 2012 US Open champion, fired a 67 to share second with fellow American Xander Schauffele.

Japan's Hideki Matsuyama closed with back-to-back birdies to shoot 68 and share fourth with Woods, England's Lee Westwood, South Africa's Louis Oosthuizen and American Patrick Reed.

Casey, whose best start in 13 prior Masters appearances was a 69, was a runner-up at the PGA Championship in August for his best major finish.

"I've not played particularly great golf since this pandemic hit," Casey said. "I've been so excited to get here."

World number 22 Casey, whose other prior major 65 was in the last round of the 2018 Masters, opened with a birdie at the 10th hole, added more at the par-5 13th and 15th and another at the par-3 16th.

He eagled the par-5 second to seize the lead alone and stretched it with a birdie at the par-3 sixth then parred in, thrilled despite the lack of spectators due to Covid-19.

"There's this vibe, the aura that Augusta National has, something you can't measure that it's exciting to play on this golf course," Casey said.

Woods, who turns 45 next month, matched his best career Masters start from 2010 as he tries to match Jack Nicklaus with a record sixth green jacket -- and move two shy of Nicklaus's all-time major win mark.

"It's just experience," Woods said. "I just know how to play this golf course. There's a sense of ease when I come here, because I understand how to play here."

Woods, ranked 33rd, birdied the par-5 13th and 15th plus the par-3 16th and added another at the first hole. It equaled his best opening round since his last victory at last year's Zozo Championship in Japan, which left him level with Sam Snead on a record 82 career US PGA Tour titles.

"I put a lot of it together," Woods said. "It was good all around."

US Open champion Bryson DeChambeau never approached the power-hitting success he enjoyed in overwhelming Winged Foot for his first major victory, closing with back-to-back birdies to settle for 70.

"Fortunate enough to be two-under," DeChambeau said. "It was a little risky out there. I'm OK with that. I just didn't execute some of my shots out there.

"Clearly today I didn't have my best stuff and I was still able to shoot under par."

Accuracy issues prevented DeChambeau from dominating, a double-bogey nightmare at the par-5 13th followed by birdies at 15 and 16.

- Simpson learns respect -

Tenth-tee starter Simpson, 35, shared fifth last year in his best Masters finish. He birdied the par-5 13th and 15th holes, then opened the front side birdie-eagle and parred in.

"I was just not respecting the golf course enough," Simpson said of his recent improved Augusta showings. "I was not going on the proper side of the hole on these approach shots. I got in my mind to respect it a little more and turned it around."

Westwood has 12 top-5 major finishes but no wins, but he reeled off three birdies in four holes starting at the par-5 second then birdied the par-5 eighth and par-4 ninth, stumbling only with a bogey at the par-3 12th.

The 47-year-old was a Masters runner-up in 2010 and 2016.