Spain’s Sergio Garcia brought some late star power to the top of the leaderboard, joining little-known Australian Marc Leishman as the co-leader Thursday at the 77th Masters Tournament.
Leishman, off in the ninth group of the day, held the lead at 6-under-par 66 until Garcia, in the sixth-to-last group, matched him.
Dustin Johnson was tied for the lead before a bogey on No. 17 dropped him back to 67.
Golfers at 68 are Fred Couples, David Lynn, Rickie Fowler, Trevor Immelman, Matt Kuchar and Garcia’s fellow countryman, Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano.
The most amazing story of the day was the play of 14-year-old Tianlang Guan of China, the youngest participant in tournament history. Tianlang, who played in the same group with two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw, birdied the 18th hole to finish at 73, beating 38 players in the field.
“He made a believer out of me today,” said Crenshaw’s caddie, Carl Jackson, who is working his 52nd Masters. “It was like Ben said, ‘He played like a savvy, old veteran,’ He’s gutsy. He has no fear. I think tomorrow will be better. Every round is a learning curve, and he’ll pick it up quick.”
On a cool and dry day, Garcia and Leishman stole the thunder from Tiger Woods (70), Phil Mickelson (71), Rory McIlroy (72) and defending champion Bubba Watson (75). Watson’s round was the highest by a defending Masters champion since 2007, when Mickelson shot 76.
Mickelson was not happy about the soft greens, which made them slow to putt. He had said as much Tuesday but was surprised that tournament officials didn’t speed them up in the first round.
“I don’t get it – they are soft and slow, and consequently we have 45 players at par or better,” he said.
Twelve players shot in the 60s, and 33 were under par.
“This was not the normal Augusta National, when we have soft conditions like this,” Mickelson said. “When we have soft conditions like this, the subtleties of the course don’t come out and the difficulties don’t come out and everybody is able to get at pins whether you have a 5-iron or a 9-iron. Everything is stopping (on the greens). That’s why we have so many people shooting under par that we haven’t talked about prior to the tournament.”
Garcia, playing in his 15th Masters, matched his career low at Augusta National, never one of his favorite courses.
He is a co-leader a year after he doubted his ability to win a major championship. After the third round of the 2012 Masters, he said that “in 13 years, I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to play for second or third place” in majors.
Asked about that comment Thursday, the 33-year-old Garcia said that he had been frustrated after his 75 in the third round of last year’s Masters and that his words “probably came out wrong. I know what I meant.”
Even though Augusta National is “obviously not my favorite,” Garcia said Thursday that “every time I tee off in a tournament, my goal is to play the best I can and have a chance at winning.”
He’s playing well so far, especially on the front nine at Augusta National. He shot 4-under 32 on that side and then added another birdie on No. 10. He hit 14 of 18 greens in regulation and had 27 putts.
Before the late finish by Garcia, Leishman was the surprise leader, bringing back memories of the days when little-known players annually led the first round of the Masters. Though Leishman won at Hartford last year on the PGA Tour, he is ranked 108th in the world.
In contrast to Leishman’s low profile, Garcia is ranked 16th in the world and has 23 worldwide victories.
Leishman’s only other Masters appearance came in 2010, when he shot 72-79 because he spent too much time soaking in the tournament’s history.
“I was like a bit of a deer in headlights, I guess,” said Leishman, who has finished no better than 38th in his past seven tour starts on the PGA Tour. “I found myself looking around a little bit too much and not concentrating on getting the ball in the hole, which is what you need to do.
“I would find myself thinking about what I’d seen on TV as a kid,” Leishman continued, referring to Fred Couples’ “ball on the bank” on No. 12 in 1992 and Larry Mize’s chip-in on No. 11 in the 1987 Masters.
“Just things like that, that I probably should have came here a few more times before the tournament, before my first Masters so I didn’t do that,” he said. “But I didn’t, and I found myself doing that during the tournament, which wasn’t great.”
Leishman is the latest Australian to carry his country’s hopes of producing its first Masters champion.
“It would be huge, obviously. It’s only Thursday afternoon and there is a lot of golf to play,” he said.
Leishman probably doesn’t want to know the record of first-round leaders in the Masters over the past 28 years: Only one of them, Immelman, in 2008, has gone on to win the Masters.
The last Australian to lead the Masters after the first round was Greg Norman, in 1996.
“If I can keep playing the way I’ve been playing, there’s no reason why not,” Leishman said about winning. “That’s the goal.”