AUGUSTA,GA. — AUGUSTA, Ga. -- It was a red, red Thursday at the Masters. Blue skies, warm temperatures and a light breeze offered a perfect stage for scoring, and the first-round scoreboard was covered with red numbers, the color that indicates under-par scores.
Old, young, famous, unknown -- they all gave the Augusta National course a stern shaking, and the result was a leader board that would make for a terrific finish come Sunday. The leaders were Lanny Wadkins, Mark McCumber and Jim Gallagher Jr., all at 67, but the list of names just below them would make any golf potato sit up on the couch and watch.
Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson had the galleries roaring with birdie flurries, each finishing a stroke off the lead, at 68. Even with them were Jumbo Ozaki, the best from Japan; Spain's Jose-Maria Olazabal, considered by many the next star from Europe; and Fred Couples, one of the best Americans.
Among those one stroke farther back, at 69, were Scott Simpson, a two-time U.S. Open winner; Phil Mickelson, a young American amateur who out-dueled defending champion Nick Faldo in their pairing; and Wayne Levi, Player of the Year on the PGA Tour last year.
The only notables who didn't take advantage of the circumstances were Greg Norman, who shot a 78, the same as Arnold Palmer, and Seve Ballesteros, who started strongly but shot a 41 on the back nine to finish at 75. Faldo, trying to win his third consecutive Masters, shot an inconspicuous 72.
In all, 30 of the 86 players broke par, and, remarkably, only four of the 30 were 30 or younger. An additional 22 shot par 72s. The 52 par-or-better scores broke by eight the tournament's first-round record, set 26 years ago.
"The scoring conditions were awfully good," said Nicklaus, a six-time Masters winner, who had six birdies. "I didn't start out playing that well, but I birdied the right holes. You do have to still keep your mind about you, even in these conditions."
The conditions prevailed from sunrise to sundown, and the race to the top of the leader board was an all-day business. Wadkins was the first golfer off the tee and had his 67 on the board before noon. McCumber played in the next-to-last pairing, finishing his round in the evening shadows.
Wadkins, 41, was a surprise leader, for, although he has won more than $4 million and a major championship in his career, he has been coming to the Masters since 1970 without much success. He has finished in the top 10 only three times. In one stretch he went seven years without breaking 70.
lTC He had eight birdies yesterday, though, including four in the last seven holes. It is worth noting that, after all those years of failure here, he tied for third last year. Could it be that he finally is &L getting the hang of this course?
"The problem has been that you need to putt well here to win, and I just haven't been that great a putter," Wadkins said. "But I'm putting better these last couple of years than I ever have. When I put the ball close today, I pretty much made the putt, which is what you have to do."
If Wadkins was a surprise, he paled as such next to Gallagher, 30, a Masters rookie. He comes from a remarkable golf family in Indiana -- his father is a teaching pro; his wife, Cissye Meeks Gallagher, plays on the women's tour; and his brother and sister play on the pro satellite tours -- but he didn't find his legs as a pro until he won at Milwaukee last year.
"Sure I was nervous today. Who wouldn't be?" he said. "The key for me was the first hole. I drove it into the trees, but I got it out and made a par. That settled me down. It's exciting. My whole family is here, everyone. It's going to be a fun week."
Last week was a fun week for McCumber, whose wife gave birth to the couple's third child, a son. That was better than yesterday's six-birdie round, but he will take both. He made only one truly bad shot all day, an errant 3-iron that resulted in his only bogey, at No. 8.
"I played extremely solid," he said. "It's a mind game for me here. I'm an anxious person, excitable, but at Augusta National you have to be emotionally prepared. You have to maintain your composure. I felt like I did that."
Perhaps the most interesting pairing of the day was Faldo and Mickelson, a 20-year-old left-hander who has won the National Collegiate Athletic Association title, twice won the United States Amateur and won the PGA Tour event at Tucson this year.
Faldo was his usual steady self through 11 holes, with 10 pars and a birdie, but in the last seven holes he turned erratic, making three bogeys to offset an eagle. Mickelson, meanwhile, finished with an eagle and two birdies in the last six holes, ending three strokes ahead of Faldo.
"I bogeyed three of the last four holes on the front nine," Mickelson said, "but I'd heard veteran players say that you can't force birdies here, that you have to be patient. It turned for me with the eagle at 13. I put it within 6 feet and made the putt, and that set the tone for the rest of the round."
For just about everyone's round, to tell the truth.
The leaders . . .
Lanny Wadkins 34-33-67
Jim Gallagher Jr. 34-33-67
Mark McCumber 33-34-67
. . . and followers
Fred Couples 34-34-68
Tom Watson 34-34-68
Jack Nicklaus 33-35-68
Jumbo Ozaki 35-33-68
Jose M. Olazabal 35-33-68
Ben Crenshaw 35-35-70
Ray Floyd 35-36-71