With Tiger Woods now off the course, the attention turns to the final few groups playing Thursday's opening round at the Masters. Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy, the two favorites after Woods, are playing in consecutive groups, and both are hovering around even-par. Mickelson said this week that he was "nervous" about his preparation coming into the week, and he's been off through his first 12 holes. Phil bogeyed three of his first seven holes to stall at 1-over and tied at 44th. But a birdie streak at Amen Corner pulled Mickelson back to even, as he drained a birdie for a two at No. 12 and nearly backed it up with an eagle on No. 13, a hole singularly identifiable with the Lefty these days.
McIlroy also followed Phil just moments later with a birdie of his own at No. 13 to get himself back in the red. It was a must-make after bogeying two of his first three holes on the second nine. Rory enters the week off a second-place tie at the Texas Open, and he's proven that he's comfortable making his way around Augusta. Despite last week's showing, however, it's been a rough season for Rory so simply being under par is a good sign early.
At this point, Rory and Phil are chasing two of the other top names in the afternoon wave -- Sergio Garcia and Dustin Johnson. At this same event last year, Garcia said he was not capable of winning majors. He back pedaled from that frustration, and had a very nice 2012 season. But it will always be about the majors with Garcia, and he joins Marc Leishman with the clubhouse lead at 6-under. There's way too much time left to start thinking about Sergio on Sunday (who knows with him, he could even miss the cut), but this is a good start for the precocious Spaniard.
Joining him is DJ, the bomb-and-gouger who has had his own share of majors meltdowns in a much shorter career. Johnson is a hole behind Sergio, but he has yet to make a bogey through his first 16 holes. The round really moved into something special at the par-5 13th hole, where Dustin made the first eagle of the day. The long-hitter added another birdie at the next par-5, No. 15, to move into a tie for the lead.
The scoring conditions are ideal for the afternoon wave, and there are several big names one off the lead, including Matt Kuchar and Fred Couples. It seems that Boom Boom will contend at Augusta into his 60s, so it's not shocking to see him at the top of the leaderboard yet again. As for Kuchar, it's a good bet that the Georgia Tech product will win a green jacket before his career is over and this is another strong start at one of his favorite venues. Here's a current snapshot of the top of the leaderboard: