AUGUSTA, GA – As brilliant sunshine replaced drenching rain, golfers familiar with seeing their names on the leader board at Augusta National reprised roles in the opening round of the 86th Masters Tournament.

Past champions and runners-up alike made their presence felt, and the premier golfer of his era made a successful return to competition.

At the end of a day on which starting times were delayed by 30 minutes after northeast Georgia was pounded by more than 3 inches of rain from Tuesday through early Thursday morning, it was Sungjae Im leading the way.

Buoyed by three consecutive birdies to start his round and an eagle on the par-5 13th hole, where he sank a 12-foot putt after an approach from 219 yards, Im, a 24-year old South Korean, shot a five-under 67 to take a one-stroke lead over Australian Cameron Smith, who joined Im in a tie for second two years ago.

It is the first time a player from South Korea has led any round at the Masters. “I’m excited and happy about the hot start,” Im said, “but I want to be humble. I still have three days left to play. I want to stay composed and hopefully continue this.”

It’s the 25th time an International player has held the lead/co-lead after the first round of the Masters since World War II. Only Seve Ballesteros of Spain (1980) and Trevor Immelman of South Africa (2008) went on to win the Green Jacket.

Smith, who won the Players Championship last month, bookended his round with double bogeys on Nos. 1 and 18.

“I think 1 and 18 was obviously really frustrating,” Smith said. “I think it’ll motivate me the next few days. I played some really solid golf today, and to be 4-under is a little bit disappointing. But given the condition of the golf course and the condition with the wind and stuff like that, if you had given me 4-under at the start of the day, I would have taken it.”

Four players shot 69, including two past champions – Danny Willett of England (2016) and Dustin Johnson (2020) – and current World No. 1 Scottie Scheffler.

“The wind was swirling,” Willett said. “It was blowing, it was laying down. It’s a tricky enough day.”

The other player to shoot in the 60s was Joaquin Niemann of Chile, who was responsible for the most spectacular shot of the first round when he holed a 105-yard shot for eagle-2 on No. 9, his ball rolling down a slope and into the cup.

Conditions are supposed to get tougher over the next couple of days, with cooler temperatures and freshening breezes. Wind gusts are forecasted to reach 20 to 25 miles per hour Friday and increase up to 30 mph on Saturday.

“It was softer when we started the round,” Johnson said, “but as the day went on, the course dried out, and it definitely started to firm up. It’s going to continue to keep getting firmer, especially with the forecast tomorrow with sun and a lot of wind.”

Tiger Woods, competing in an individual event for the first time in 17 months and walking Augusta National’s hills on a surgically repaired right leg and foot damaged in a February 2021 car crash, played in front of large and enthusiastic galleries as he shot 1-under 71.

Patrons weren’t the only ones watching the five-time Masters champion. “I almost felt like a patron out there at some points today,” Smith said. “You can’t not watch him. He’s unreal.”

Woods is tied for 10th place, one of 18 golfers to break par in the opening round.

“It’s not easy to go from not playing tournament golf to coming to arguably the biggest tournament that we play,” Scheffler said. “Obviously, he’s pretty special at golf.”

The others at 71 included first-timers Harold Varner III and Harry Higgs along with Will Zalatoris, who finished second in his maiden Masters last year.

Several big names have some ground to make up after 18 holes. Collin Morikawa and Rory McIlroy had 73s; Jordan Spieth and Jon Rahm shot 74s; Brooks Koepka had 75 and Justin Thomas 76.

Everyone is chasing Im, who is known for his heavy playing schedule and is using his success two years ago as a confidence booster.

“It was great to have a great finish at my Masters debut,” he said. “And because of that experience, I feel comfortable when I come to Augusta. I feel like I can play well every time.”

Courtesy – The Masters, Bill Fields