AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The morning wind chill was in the 30s, making it seem like January rather than April. It took nearly eight hours and 46 rounds for someone to break par, making it seem more like the U.S. Open than the Masters.
The most famous golf course west of St. Andrew's had turned into Augusta National Speedway. In a part of the country where stock-car racing is king, the PGA Tour's most celebrated event seemed more like NASCAR. Lots of crashes, and more than a few scrapes.
But the winds died, the wreckage was cleared and the yellow flag was lifted. It opened the way for a number of players to find their way under par and move to the top of the leader board, none more dramatic than journeyman John Huston and none more exciting than Tiger Woods.
Huston closed out a 5-under-par 67 by making a 5-iron for eagle-2 from 190 yards and 30 yards off the 18th fairway. It gave him a one-shot lead over Paul Stankowski, a two-shot lead over Paul Azinger and a three-shot lead over Woods.
While Huston claimed the lead, Woods once again took the spotlight. Playing in his first major championship as a pro, Woods overcame a shaky start that resulted in a 4-over 40 on the front nine to play the back nine in 6-under, one shot off Mark Calcavecchia's record.
Only seven players broke par, 25 fewer than during the first round last year, and none of those who did teed off before Azinger at 11: 47 a.m. Among those who barely made it out of the first turn, uh, round, were defending champion Nick Faldo, who finished with a 75, and Greg Norman, who shot 77. That was one stroke less than Norman shot during his historic collapse last year, when he blew a six-shot lead in the final round.
"I think the low round when I got here at 12: 30 was 75, so you know that it's going to be really difficult," said Huston, 35, who has played well here in the past, finishing as high as a third-place tie in his first Masters in 1990. "I'm sure that we had better conditions to play this afternoon. After the fourth hole, I would have bet that nobody was going to shoot in the 60s."
But Huston should have known on the first hole that the ghosts of past Masters blowups would not find him as they had others. After his approach to the par-4 rolled off to the left of the green, Hustonchipped up. The ball got onto the top tier momentarily and then rolled back, nearly falling into his divot.
From there, he chipped in from about 60 feet and the adventure began. It included nearly holing out again from a bunker at No. 7, saving par on a straight downhill 12-footer at No. 9 and barely avoiding going into the water at 15 before making birdie. He also made putts to save par on three other holes.
Then came the shot at 18.
"It was a good shot," said Huston, whose sliced drive on the 405-yard hole had found a clump of trees and came to rest near the 10th fairway. "As soon as I hit it, my caddie goes, 'That's real good, you know.' When you're that far off the fairway, to get good yardage [estimate] is difficult."
His view was blocked by a tree -- "but it was a small tree," he said -- and though Huston couldn't see the green or the pin, he could hear the roar and knew what he had done.
"As soon as they make that noise," he said, "you know that it's in."
Woods was hearing noises all over the back nine yesterday. After starting the day by blocking his drive into trees to the left of the fairway and bogeying the hole, it took Woods three more errant tee shots, three more bogeys and eight more holes to figure out what he was doing wrong.
"I was pretty hot at the way I was playing," said Woods. "I couldn't keep the ball on the fairway. From there, you can't attack some of these pins. I was playing really defensive golf, and that's not exactly what you want to do when you're struggling. It was a tough day initially, but I got through it."
Others not nearly as talented or mentally tough as Woods didn't, and even those considered even more accomplished had their problems too. Former champion Larry Mize marked the 10-year anniversary of his 140-yard chip-in to beat Norman in sudden death with a 79 that included seven straight bogeys in one stretch. Faldo, a three-time champion here, had five bogeys yesterday after having only eight and a double-bogey in four rounds last year.
Other casualties included Steve Elkington, the tour's leading money winner this year. He shot 76, as did Phil Mickelson. Scott Hoch, who came here fourth on the money list, shot 79 to equal the worst of his 36 previous rounds here; reigning U.S. Open champion Steve Jones shot 82. Loren Roberts, considered among the best putters on the PGA Tour, five-putted the first hole and had three triple-bogey 7s en route to a disastrous 85.
Former champion Doug Ford, the 74-year-old curmudgeon who broke the tournament record with his 45th straight start, said after also shooting 85, "Those were the fastest greens I've
played on in 60 years of golf."
Even those who survived the swirling winds, rock-hard greens and less than comfortable morning temperature (around 43 degrees for the start) couldn't fathom the difficulty of the conditions. According to a club member, even those setting the pin placements didn't figure on the 15- to 20-mph northeast wind.
"They said the conditions were so much different than what they thought they were going to be," said Danny Yates, who helps to conduct the player interviews in the media room.
Willie Wood, who finished at even-par 72, told Huston that putting the greens in the morning "was like driving a car on ice with two hands on the wheel and no way to stop."
Former U.S. Open champion Lee Janzen, also among the 10 at even-par said, "That's by far the toughest I've ever seen the course play. It is very grueling. When I walked out of the scorer's tent, I felt like I had a cup of coffee. I felt like I was wired and drained."
Sam Torrance had a best idea. After a 3-over 75, the often ornery Scot wanted to get away from the place as quickly as possible.
"I'm going to go back to where I'm staying, sit by the television all day and watch all this disaster," he said.
4( Live from Augusta National Speedway.
.' The leader John Huston 36-3167
and selected followers
Paul Stankowski 35-3368
Paul Azinger 33-3669
Tiger Woods 40-3070
Jose M. Olazabal 35-3671
Costantino Rocca 38-3371
Nick Price 36-3571
Fred Couples 37-3572
Bernhard Langer 37-3572
Fred Funk 37-3673
Fuzzy Zoeller 37-3875
Ben Crenshaw 38-3775
Tom Watson 36-3975
Nick Faldo 41-3475
Mark O'Meara 39-3675
Craig Stadler 38-3977
Tom Kite 39-3877
Jack Nicklaus 39-3877
Greg Norman 39-3877
Raymond Floyd 41-3879
Seve Ballesteros 40-4181
Arnold Palmer 44-4589
Complete scores, Page 10D
Pub Date: 4/11/97