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Before Nicklaus and Watson began going for Augusta's throat, agronomy dominated conversation at the Masters, as it often does. This year's scientific discourse focused on the new bent-grass greens, which had been installed over the winter. The subject was especially hot on Thursday, which ended in a four-way tie among Miller, Curtis Strange, Lon Hinkle and an Australian making his Masters debut, Greg Norman. They fired three-under 69s, the highest score to lead an opening round at Augusta in years. As if the reseeded and faster greens were not giving the players enough trouble, the course was even more difficult because several pin placements were "hanging on the cliffs," as Nicklaus put it.
These greens will gradually become as fast as Augusta's thin rye greens were in the days of Ben Hogan and Sam Snead and Byron Nelson. While they aren't that swift yet, they were different, and even a veteran like Nicklaus was, in a sense, seeing a new golf course. The putts on every hole were breaking more severely than they ever had before. Putts that once broke six inches were breaking as much as a foot and a half. The short ones were especially treacherous. Nothing could be taken for granted. There were no tap-ins out there and it became common to see a competitor survey a one-footer from four different angles and then stand over the ball like a statue.
Nicklaus shot a 70 on Thursday, despite requiring 34 putts. He described the day as probably the best tee-to-green round he had ever played at Augusta—and this from the man who had won the tournament five times. "If I'd putted," said Nicklaus, "I'd be leading by five."
The new greens affected play in another way. They caused some shots hit with backspin to kick backward a lot more than the players intended. Golfers saw shots weave off into bunkers and worse. Jerry Pate, playing in an early twosome, arrived at the par-5 15th two under par. The wind had forced him to lay up short of the green in two. He struck what he thought was a beautiful wedge to the pin, which was sitting on the front of the green, on a cliff just above a pond. The ball backed off the putting surface and into the water.
Pate, who has a bit of a temper anyhow, was livid. And it did nothing to improve his attitude when he saw Harry Easterly of the USGA, who was officiating at the 15th, go dashing over to the spot where the ball had entered the water and mark the place with a tee.
What Pate said to Easterly upon arriving on the scene was, in effect, "Harry, I've played a round of golf before. I know where the damn ball went in, and I know where to drop it. Now get out of my way or I'll throw you in the lake."
The least fortunate player on Thursday was Keith Fergus, but what happened to him had nothing to do with the greens. He was sailing along three under par on the 17th hole when he lifted his ball from a gallery crossway, thinking it was ground under repair because it was marked off with white lines. On the PGA tour, crossways are marked off with white lines and you get a free drop. But this is the Masters and local rules, Augusta National's own rules, prevail. An official some distance away had seen Fergus pick up the ball and hit it, and informed Fergus that he'd be penalized a stroke for lifting the ball and two more for not replacing it, for a total of three.
"I did the same thing on 8," Fergus volunteered.
"That's three more," said the official. "Six in all."
"I can add," said Fergus.