AUGUSTA, Ga. -- They talk about the tradition here, of a tournament that doesn't change, of a golf course that only seems to improve with age. But yesterday at Augusta National, after the opening round of the 58th Masters, they were talking about something else.
How else do you explain former champion Larry Mize, who less than a month ago wasn't sure he was even going to play after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery, taking the opening-round lead with a 4-under-par 68?
Or Fulton Allem, who along with Tom Kite finished one shot behind at 3-under 69, hitting his tee shot 40 yards on the par-3 16th hole, needing to consult his yardage book for the 101-yard approach, then nearly saving par?
Or former two-time champion Seve Ballesteros playing one of his more adventurously successful rounds in years, missing six greens on the front, two more on the back and winding up as one of six players at 2-under-par 70?
Or Greg Norman, after what he called "the worst first or second round I've ever played here," a round that included five more bogeys than he made two weeks ago in winning The Players Championship, and still being in the hunt at 2-under?
A confluence of a strong north wind in the morning, a green-baking sun in the afternoon and the most sinister pin placements most had ever seen around here -- especially for an opening round -- conspired to make yesterday an, uh, interesting experience for all and a totally nightmarish one for many.
"A lot of people can't handle the adversities of the game," said former two-time champion Tom Watson.
Watson was handling it fine until he ran into the par-5 15th, the hole that became Moby Dick to some of the world's best players. Watson was sailing along at 4-under, leading the field and thoroughly enjoying the afternoon.
He then proceeded to hit his 7-iron approach on the 500-yard par-5 over the green, chipped right through into a creek on the other side, chipped back on and, with the one-shot penalty, two-putted for a triple-bogey 8. Watson finished the round with a birdie at 18 for 2-under 70.
"It's a humbling game," said Watson, 44, looking for his first victory in seven years and his first major championship in nearly 12. "You play 17 good holes and all they want to talk about is an 8."
Or a 10. That's what Nolan Henke took at 15. After laying up 80 yards from the pin, Henke hit an L-wedge onto the green, but the ball spun back into the creek. He then hit another L-wedge onto the creek's bank, with the same result. He then flew the green, chipped to within 10 feet and two-putted. The rest of his round consisted of 15 pars, one birdie and a bogey. He declined to talk about it.
It wasn't just the 15th hole that played havoc with everyone's score, and psyche. When 58-year-old Gary Player, a three-time champion here, came through the 400-yard par-4 first hole en route to another agelessly wonderful round of 1-under 71, a marshall told him that "10 people must have putted off the green."
The 435-yard par-4 fifth hole had its pin set in a landing area "the size of a thimble," said Norman, who managed to birdie it. The pin on the 205-yard par-3 fourth, yesterday's toughest hole, was on the left side of the green, only five feet from the front edge. It meant that any ball landing behind the hole, especially on the right side, was putted from a severe downhill slope.
When Ballesteros put his tee shot in the worst possible place, behind a bunker to the right of the green and down a grassy embankment, Ray Floyd thought his playing partner would be lucky to get within 20 feet of the cup. Ballesteros, who made a career of impossible shots, hit a "parachute" shot 5 feet away and saved par.
"It was the most unbelievable par I've ever seen," said Floyd, another former champion who would also shoot 2-under par 70. "It's not that he's lucky. He's lucky a lot."
Said Ballesteros, "It came out perfect."
That's certainly the way Mize felt. A year ago, he shared the first-round lead at 5-under 67. Hardly anyone noticed since a fellow named Jack Nicklaus was also among the leaders. Mize barely cared, since his wife had just given birth and his mind was a blur.
Yesterday, he noticed and everyone else did too. It was his finest moment at the Masters since chipping in from 140 feet away on the second sudden-death hole to beat Norman seven years ago, and Mize was happy to be the leader. He was even happier to have survived No. 15, which he bogeyed after putting a ball in the water.
"I probably feel better this year [than last year]," said Mize. "With all that was going on [with his family], I'm probably more confident and comfortable."
There were plenty of players who didn't find yesterday's conditions comfortable. Nicklaus, who has won a record six Masters championships, shot his second-worst round in 134 here at Augusta National, a 6-over 78. Nick Faldo, the only player aside from Nicklaus to win back-to-back titles, was at 76. Two-time and defending champion Bernhard Langer salvaged a 74.
"The golf course is tough, but I made it tougher," said Nicklaus, who is in jeopardy of missing the cut for the first time since 1967 XTC and only the second time since first coming here in 1959.
Norman, who saw a streak of eight straight sub-70 rounds in major championships end, said, "You couldn't overpower the golf course. I don't know anyone who could do that. You had to play with a lot of confidence and a lot of patience."
Something else was needed yesterday. An appreciation for the bizarre.