By PAUL NEWBERRY
The Associated Press
AUGUSTA, Ga. – Vijay Singh was at the top of the Masters leaderboard. No surprise there.
What about the next two guys? Rocco Mediate and Arron Oberholser.
And where was Tiger Woods? Settling for par.
Showing no regard for the longer, tougher course, Singh put up a bogey-free, 5-under 67 that gave him a one-shot lead over Mediate after the opening round at Augusta National. Oberholser, a Masters rookie, was another shot back.
Singh and Mediate had something in common. They were the first two players to make birdies on the 11th hole, a tough test that became even harder when Augusta National decided to super-size its course to 7,445 yards – the second-longest in major championship history behind Whistling Straits.
That’s where the similarities end.
Singh is a three-time major champion who won the Masters in 2000. Mediate qualified for Augusta based on a sixth-place finish at the U.S. Open last summer. Otherwise, he’s been mired in one of the worst slumps of his career, finishing 114th on the money list a year ago – an improvement on his 176th-place showing in 2004.
“I haven’t been here in a while,” Mediate quipped as he walked into the interview room. “Still the same, though.”
Oberholser didn’t have high expectations coming into his first Masters, and his attitude remained the same after he shot 69.
“No one expects me to win this championship,” he said. “I don’t expect me to win this championship. I have goals, sure, but they’re very small ones. Baby steps, basically. This is not going to be my last Masters, that’s for sure. Learning this course is paramount.”
Woods, the defending champion, came in as an overwhelming favorite to win his fifth green jacket – only Jack Nicklaus has more – and felt good about his opening 72.
He holed out his second shot from 163 yards for eagle at No. 14, one of the toughest holes on the course. But he gave it right back with a double-bogey 7 at the par-5 15th, getting a bad break when his lay-up shot caught a divot, then he knocked it in the water.
Woods finished strong with a birdie at No. 18, leaving him solidly in contention. Just remember: He opened with a 74 last year, but went on to beat Chris DiMarco in a playoff.
“I thought I played really well, actually,” Woods said. “I’m better than I was last year. I’m in good shape.”
Plenty of golfers were struggling on the longer course.
U.S. Open champion Michael Campbell had a 75. Two-time Master winner Jose Maria Olazabal struggled to a 76. So did American Ryder Cup captain Tom Lehman, two days after he was uninjured in a random, drive-by shooting on the way to pick up his family at the Augusta airport. David Duval shot an 84 for his worst Masters round ever.
Mediate started with 10 straight pars, then sparked a stretch of four birdies in five holes beginning at the most unlikely spot possible. Dozens of new pine trees have been planted along the right side of the 11th fairway. The tee was moved back to 505 yards, making it the longest par-4 on the course.
Still, Mediate managed the first birdie of the day at the treacherous hole. After driving into the left rough, he knocked a 5-iron to 10 feet and made the putt.
“You’re not supposed to do that on that hole,” Mediate said. “I actually kind of apologized to the hole as I left.”
Singh was 1 under when he went to 11, “the hole we all think about before we go out there.” He pulled off a 5-iron from the right rough, the ball settling 10 feet from the flag.
“I had a difficult shot there,” he said. “I was lucky to make birdie.”
A pair of South Africans were at 70: Two-time U.S. Open winner Retief Goosen and Tim Clark. Two major winners from 2003, Mike Weir (Masters) and Ben Curtis (British Open), were part of the group at 71, joined by the biggest surprise of the day.
Ben Crenshaw broke par at Augusta National for the first time since he closed with a 68 in 1995 to capture his second green jacket.
Crenshaw hasn’t made the Augusta cut since 1997 and hinted Wednesday that his playing days at Augusta National were nearly done. Now, he might want to reconsider.
“I had a few miracles out there,” Crenshaw said.
Phil Mickelson, considered most likely to knock off Woods after a 13-stroke victory at last weekend’s BellSouth Classic, was one of the last players to tee off. He was even through 13 holes.
Woods, a 2-to-1 favorite, is just the third player to win the Masters four times, tying him with Arnold Palmer and putting him two behind Nicklaus. Then again, Woods has other things on his mind – for the first time, he’s playing the Masters without his father.
Earl Woods is ravaged by cancer and too weak to travel, his condition so serious that his son flew across the country to California the day before The Players Championship to check on him. Woods returned to Sawgrass and tied for 22nd, hurting his chances with poor iron play and substandard putting.
“I know it’s difficult for him,” said Crenshaw, who won in ’95 just days after the burying his mentor and friend, Harvey Penick. “I’m sure he’s thinking about it every second. But he’s got a job to do. Sometimes, you do things that you don’t think you’re capable of doing.”
Woods said he didn’t speak with his father before the round.
“I had enough to worry about,” Woods said, “trying to get out there and hit a shot.”