AUGUSTA, Ga. - If someone besides Tiger Woods wins the Masters, then the world’s No. 1 player has only himself to blame.
It’s well known that Tiger’s seemingly invincible persona has created major problems for those who pursue him. But a quick glance at Thursday’s first-round leaderboard from Augusta National rings out loud and clear that the competition apparently is getting a clue.
They are young and talented, and mostly overlooked because of Woods. But guys like Justin Rose, Trevor Immelman, Brandt Snedeker, Ian Poulter and defending champion Zach Johnson are doing their best to keep up with Tiger.
Along those lines, Rose and Immelman, who lead this chase for the green jacket early with 4-under 68s, and Poulter, who is two shots back, took a “road trip’’ two weeks ago, flying up from Orlando, Fla.
“Kind of like three kids going to their favorite course,’’ concluded Immelman of the weekend venture spent at Augusta National. “We had an absolute ball. Any time you play the course, you learn something new.’’
Yeah, “kids’’ will try anything theses days to catch Tiger, and good for them.
Of those five aforementioned players who all are perched among the top six after Thursday’s opening round, three are younger than the 32-year-old Woods — Rose (27), Immelman (28) and Snedeker (27) — while Poulter and Johnson are the same age.
There are others who are young and hungry and also played slightly better than Woods’ opening 72, which could have been much worse had Tiger not reversed his fortunes with a chip-in eagle at the 15th hole.
They include Aaron Oberholser and former Arizona State All-American Paul Casey, who both live in Scottsdale and are 32 and 30, respectively. That’s seven guys who are Woods’ age or younger on the leader board, who all came out swinging despite Tiger being the heaviest of favorites this week.
What’s wild about this young and restless stuff is that their common denominator is Woods. Without question, he motivates his generation much like Jack Nicklaus did when he ruled this major championship with six greens jackets from 1963-1986.
Rose, for one, has been chasing Woods since Rose turned pro at the tender age of 17.
“It seems like I’ve been after him forever,’’ said the Englishman of his 10-year odyssey.
Despite his youth, Rose certainly is no stranger at the Masters. He had the lead here after the first round in 2004, and did it again last year after a three-year absence due to poor play and injury. And while three straight first-round leads should tell him something, Rose said the biggest secret he’s uncovered about Augusta National actually came last year from somebody else besides Tiger.
“Zach Johnson disproved that theory,’’ he said of the modern-day theory that says only Woods, Phil Mickelson and the rest of the bomb squad can win here on a course that rambles on and on for 7,445 yards.
Poulter, whose 70 held the early lead for much of the day, has been chastised in the past month for daring to compare himself to Woods. But the Englishman looked like the world-beater he had imagined in Round 1, especially when his 8-iron from 169 yards at the 16th hole found the cup for the loudest roar of the day.
“Tiger laughs all the time about (the comparison),’’ said Poulter, who is ranked No. 24 in the world. “He keeps calling me ‘No. 2,’ which is nice. So I guess I just got to keep playing better golf and I might get there.’’
Whether the road trip helps the three amigos prove that ultimately there is more thanone way to skin a cat remains to be seen. But Immelman and Rose enjoyed it.
“I think what we did was take the pressure off the practice days this week,’’ Rose concluded.
“They were an awesome couple of days,’’ added Immelman, who said Rose won all the money.