April 07, 2017: As if the winds whipping through the pines at Augusta National Thursday weren’t daunting enough, William McGirt also had to contend the fact that he was playing in his first Masters, at the not-so-young age of 37. But the aw-shucks journeyman from the small town of Fairmont, N.C., didn’t let either of those things get to him as he carved his way around the course for an opening-round 69 that puts him alone in second place, four strokes behind leader Charley Hoffman.
“It was very difficult out there, and the wind was all over the place,” said McGirt, who recorded 13 pars, four birdies and only one bogey. “But when I missed, I missed in the right spots and was able to make some good up-and-downs. I had a very solid day, and this was one of the top four or five rounds I have ever played on Tour.”
To be sure, McGirt’s play was impressive, especially on the second nine, where he dropped a lengthy putt on No. 13 for a birdie and then came close to acing the 16th before draining a 6-footer for a birdie 2 to reach 3-under par. “All I could think at that point was, ‘Let’s get this thing home without hurting ourselves,’” he said. And that’s just what McGirt did, coolly making pars on the last two holes.
It was quite a performance for a guy who grew up playing on a humble track called the Flag Tree Golf Course, and who knocked around the mini-tours for years before earning his PGA Tour card. He gained his invitation to the Masters on the strength of his victory at the 2016 Memorial Tournament. That performance certainly boosted his confidence, as did a top-10 finish in the PGA Championship two months later.
Despite being a Masters rookie, McGirt said his comfort level was high when he arrived in Augusta the Friday before Tournament week. A chance encounter with Jack Nicklaus, the Memorial host and six-time Masters champion, only sent McGirt’s spirits higher.
“Jack [Nicklaus] told me to play smart and within myself and that if I could win his tournament, I could certainly win here.” – William McGirt”
Those words went a long way toward relaxing him. The equanimity carried over into his first competitive round at Augusta National. But that’s not to say he didn’t feel some jitters when he stepped on the first tee.
“When I heard, ‘Fore, please, William McGirt now driving,’ I almost shed a tear,” he said, “but I realized I had to get up there and I had 40 seconds to hit it, so I better get it done quick.”
Rather than try to overpower the course, he set out to play within himself. “I know my limitations,” McGirt explained. “I know my capabilities. I know I am sneaky short and cannot hit it as far as Rory or Dustin. I have to play with precision and think my way around the golf course.”
But as he committed to playing his best, McGirt also made sure that he made the effort to enjoy his first Masters experience. He said he had savored every drive he has taken up and down Magnolia Lane and was among only a handful of competitors who were on the first tee early Thursday morning when Honorary Starters Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player hit their opening drives. “I was going to be there no matter when my tee time was today,” said McGirt. “It was something I had always wanted to do, and with this being the first Masters without Arnold Palmer in so long, there was no question of not being there.”
The start to Friday’s round will no doubt be less emotional for all involved, and there are advantages to McGirt going off first, as a twosome at 8 a.m. with Australian Rod Pampling. That will allow him to play before the wind has the chance to pick up – and before he has time to think too hard about starting his Friday round at Augusta as one of the first-round leaders of the Masters.
“The plan tonight is to go home, get some food, get a good night’s sleep and then duplicate today’s round tomorrow,” he said.