AUGUSTA, Ga. -- No piece of golf's green landscape has taken more professional prisoners over the years than Amen Corner, the beautiful and maddening start to the back nine at Augusta National.
Few know that better than Lanny Wadkins, who has played the Masters for two decades without hanging a green jacket in his closet, falling short several times only because he lacked the patience to corner the Corner.
He saw it as only proper and just, then, when he birdied his way through golf's famous hell yesterday on his way to a 65 that left him atop the leader board with Jeff Sluman after the first round of the Masters.
"The Corner has kicked my butt so many times," Wadkins said, "that it owes me. Not that I'm alone. It owes everyone, really."
Many got their revenge yesterday on a warm, still day that was perfect for scoring. Thirty-five of the 83 golfers broke par, the most subpar scores in one round at the Masters since 1980.
"Not much wind," said Bernhard Langer, who shot 69.
Behind Wadkins and Sluman, whose round included a hole-in-one, were four golfers at 68: Wayne Grady, Davis Love III, Mike Hulbert and Ted Schulz. Jack Nicklaus, Fred Couples and defending champion Ian Woosnam were among those who shot 69.
The only top players who faltered were: Jose-Maria Olazabal (76) and Seve Ballesteros (75), both of whom had won twice on the European tour this year and figured prominently in pre-tournament calculations.
Wadkins, 42, also figured prominently, at least in wise calculations. He has never won here, but finished third the previous two years.
"I've just got good vibes here right now," he said. "I've been around this course awhile. I know not to let the Amen Corner beat you, to just try to get through without making mistakes."
It is a lesson that has taken him years to learn. The fifth-leadingmoney-winner in history on the PGA Tour, he is an admittedly impatient player predisposed to taking risks. That doesn't play well at Augusta National, particularly around Amen Corner.
"I'd say Lanny is the biggest surprise as someone who has never won here," Grady said. "His game is perfectly suited to the course. Maybe in the past he didn't have quite the patience he needed. I'm not saying that's so, but maybe. He's a gambler. If he'd been born 100 years ago, he'd have been a gunfighter."
Ray Floyd, another who shot 69, agreed with Grady about Wadkins' impatience.
"I would echo that and more," he said. "Lanny is a world-class player. Now that he's getting older, he might be a little more patient. And this course demands patience."
Wadkins' revenge included birdies on the 11th, 12th and 13th holes.
"It was fun back there, a lot of fun," Wadkins said. "I remember one year when I was like 8-over there [the Corner] for four days and finished just a couple of strokes back. I prefer this."
He was just another name in the pack when he two-putted the 10th for his seventh straight par yesterday. Then he got hot. He made a 12-foot birdie putt on 11 and a 15-footer on 12, then reached the par-5 13th in two strokes and two-putted from 50 feet. An 8-iron to within four feet on 14 delivered his fourth birdie in a row.
"My putter just got hot," he said. "And without the wind back there, you could select a club and it would go the right distance, which is usually the trickiest part of the Amen Corner."
Still, he saved his best shot for the last hole. After driving into the trees along the right side of the fairway, he hit a 5-iron through an opening to the front edge of the green. Lining up a 45-foot putt, he hoped just to get it close.
"I wasn't thinking at all about making it," he said. "I just didn't want to have too much work to do on the second putt. Turned out I didn't have any work at all."
His putt rolled up the long ridge, curled toward the cup and slipped into the hole along the left edge. It was his seventh birdie. No bogeys.
Still, the shot of the day belonged to Sluman, whose hole-in-one was the first ever at the 213-yard 4th hole. He hit a 4-iron.
"It came off the club real well, right at the hole," he said. "You never think hole-in-one, of course. It hit the front edge of the green andstarted rolling. And it just rolled right on in."
That put him 4-under through four holes, and he played solid golf the rest of the round, with three birdies and no bogeys.
"Just a strong, solid round," he said. "I putted well and didn't get into any trouble. But I'll need three more rounds like it to win."
The weather forecast is for more of the same, and if that holds, someone could make a run at the tournament record of 17-under, held by Jack Nicklaus (1965) and Ray Floyd (1976). But early low scores have a way of returning to earth as Masters week goes along. The Amen Corner starts acting up. Always does. No matter what happens early in the week.
The leaders . . .
Lanny Wadkins.. .. .. 34-31 -65
Jeff Sluman.. .. .. . 31-34-65
. . . and followers
Ian Woosnam.. .. .. . 36-33-69
Fred Couples.. .. .. .35-34-69
Jack Nicklaus.. .. .. 36-33-69
Ray Floyd.. .. .. .. .33-36-69
Greg Norman.. .. .. . 37-33-70
Nick Faldo.. .. .. .. 34-37-71
John Daly.. .. .. .. .37-34-71
Ben Crenshaw.. .. .. .38-34-72
Tom Watson.. .. .. .. 35-38-73
Complete scores: Page 6D
Cards of the leaders on the 6,905-yard Augusta National Golf Club course:
Par out.. .. .. .. 454.. .. 343.. .. 454-36
Wadkins out.. .. . 443.. .. 343.. .. 454-34
Sluman out.. .. .. 344.. .. 143.. .. 444-31
Grady out.. .. .. .454.. .. 343.. .. 364-36
Hulbert out.. .. . 344.. .. 543.. .. 443-34
Love out.. .. .. . 454.. .. 243.. .. 344-33
Par in.. .. .. .. .443.. .. 545..344-36-72
Wadkins in.. .. .. 432.. .. 435..343-31-65
Sluman in .. .. .. 343.. .. 535..344-34-65
Grady in.. .. .. . 442.. .. 534..334-32-68
Hulbert in.. .. .. 443.. .. 445..334-34-68
Love in.. .. .. .. 362.. .. 445..344-35-68