Paulson views Augusta from atop leader board; First-timer shoots 68 to grab first-round lead


AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Dennis Paulson had seen Augusta National only once before coming here this week for the 64th Masters. It happened three years ago when he was driving with his caddie to a tournament in South Carolina after winning a Nike Tour stop in Alabama.

The view Paulson had was from outside the gates.

"Maybe lack of knowledge is better, not knowing how hard this course can be when the wind is blowing," Paulson said yesterday. "Sometimes it's better playing courses with less knowledge than a lot of knowledge because you'll do things not realizing how difficult a shot is."

Or that you're not supposed to take the opening-round lead in your first Masters. Paulson, a former long-driving champion still looking for his first victory on the PGA Tour, did that by avoiding the disasters that befell many bigger names and shooting a 4-under par 68.

Paulson, 37, leads by one stroke over former British Open champion Tom Lehman, who double-bogeyed the par-4 18th hole to fall out of the lead. Sergio Garcia of Spain and Steve Stricker, the respective runners-up at the last two PGA Championships, are two strokes behind at 2-under 70.

Two-time Masters champion Bernhard Langer of Germany, former U.S. Open champion Steve Jones and Phil Mickelson are among five players at 1-under 71. A dozen players -- including defending champion Jose Maria Olazabal of Spain, three-time champion Nick Faldo of England, two-time U.S. Open champion Ernie Els and former PGA champions Paul Azinger, Vijay Singh and Hal Sutton, shot even-par 72.

Ten players were at 1-over, including 1982 champion Craig Stadler. Among the seven players at 2-over par were six-time champion Jack Nicklaus and 1991 winner Ian Woosnam. There were 16 players at 3-over, including 1997 champion Tiger Woods, 1998 winner Mark O'Meara and two-time champion Tom Watson.

Awed but not intimidated by the surroundings, Paulson realizes nobody is going to take his measurements for a green jacket just yet.

"Too early to worry about it," Paulson said when asked about the prospects of making his first win a major. "Let's have sole possession of the lead Sunday on the back nine somewhere."

The back nine yesterday proved daunting enough for many in the field.

Woods, even-par at the turn, made a double bogey on the par-4 10th and a triple bogey on the par-3 12th. Jones went from 5-under through 11 holes back to 1-under through 15. Stadler was cruising at 3-under through 11 before dumping two approach shots on the par-5 13th in Rae's Creek and winding up with a quadruple bogey.

"I was lucky to get the third ball on the green," said Stadler.

Luck played a factor in Paulson's round. Faced with the options of either playing safely on the green or shooting for the pin on the par-5 eighth hole, Paulson tried to get his approach onto the tiny landing area where the cup was. It was admittedly the wrong decision, but the right outcome.

The shot, from 190 yards out, wound up less than 2 feet from the cup, and Paulson birdied the hole.

"It was the scariest shot I've ever attempted to hit," said Paulson. "I knew there was no place to hit it. I was actually trying to hit a 5-iron really low into the wind. I was trying to get it pin high and hopefully give myself 30 or 40 feet and take the water out of play. I would love to see that shot on film to see how close it came to just being dead twice."

Having toughened the course by moving back several tees two years ago, by adding rough last year and narrowing some fairways this year, those running the tournament decided to put in some of the most difficult pin placements for an opening round.

On top of that was a warm but gusty wind that seemed to swirl from several directions.

The good stories are also coming from all directions going into the second round. There is Azinger, who recently won his first tournament since coming back from cancer in 1994. There is Woods, looking to continue his dominance over the rest of the PGA Tour. There is even Nicklaus, a long shot but still showing some life with a new hip at age 60.

And there is Paulson, who is trying not to be another one-round wonder, something that happens often at Augusta National.

As Lehman did in 1994, when he came from nowhere to challenge Olazabal down the stretch on Sunday, Paulson talked about his former life on the Asian Tour that helped him build confidence and his years on the Nike Tour, leading to his return to the PGA Tour last season.

Nor does Paulson seem to mind his anonymity, despite making more than $1.3 million last year and earning his first trip to the Masters by finishing 23rd on the PGA Tour money list.

"I like it that way," he said. "It's good. It's nice to go out to dinner and not have anybody bug you and look at you and point at you. You do enough on the tour out here, go out to dinner with a player that's famous and they point at you and you think your fly is open. If I won this week, that might change a little."

It has already been an amazing experience for him just being inside the gates.

"The first tee was special," he said. "Hit a great shot, got a tear in my eye."

The Masters

The leader

Dennis Paulson 33-35-68

and selected followers

Tom Lehman 32-37--69

Sergio Garcia 36-34--70

David Duval 37-36--73

Notah Begay 38-36--74

Jack Nicklaus 36-38--74

Tiger Woods 36-39--75

Fred Funk 39-36--75

Davis Love 36-39--75

Complete scores. 8d

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