A dream day: Leaderboard populated with all-time greats

AUGUSTA — Fred Couples said he believed his chances to win the Masters were little more than a pipe dream.

Tom Watson said in the past that Augusta National Golf Club’s setup was too long for him to contend at the tournament anymore.

Both pushed the limits of what most thought they were capable of Thursday in the first round of the Masters. In doing so, Couples and Watson have emerged as contenders, although they may be well past their prime.

The 50-year-old Couples not only shot the round of his career Thursday, he also had the best round in tournament history by someone 50 or older with a 6-under-par 66. He leads by one shot over a group of five golfers that includes the 60-year-old Watson, who is less than a year removed from nearly winning the British Open at Turnberry.

“To win Augusta at age 50 would be a pipe dream,” Couples said Thursday when reminded of his earlier quote. “Can I still win? Of course. It would be a nice dream that’s for sure, but I’ve got a lot of golf left to even think about being in contention.”

Two-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson is also tied for second alongside K.J. Choi, Lee Westwood and 2009 PGA Championship winner Y.E. Yang.

Four-time Masters winner Tiger Woods, who is making his return to golf after a five-month absence while dealing with the fallout of a sex scandal, is two shots back of the lead. Thirty-one players shot under par Thursday as forecasted rain and thunderstorms stayed away for much of the day.

While Woods drew much of the attention with his return to competitive golf, Couples and Watson stole some of the interest with their retro performances Thursday.

Playing later in the afternoon, Couples stayed steady throughout his round, posting seven birdies and just one bogey. Couples, who won his only major in 1992 at Augusta, lit up the back nine with four birdies in a six-hole stretch to take the lead. Six of his seven birdie putts on the day were inside of 10 feet, but a 20-footer on the par-3 12th got his birdie string going on the back nine. He birdied both par 5s (Nos. 13 and 15) and the par-4 17th on his way to a 32 on the back.

Couples has struggled in recent years with back problems, but he has been playing some of his best golf in years in his first year eligible on the Champions Tour. He has won three senior tour events this year.

“I played with Freddie on Monday (in a practice round),” Woods said. “He played just like (he did Thursday). I said if it was a tournament round, he would be in the top five. That was just on a Monday. ... You can see Freddie is just exuding (confidence).”

Watson erased any doubts that his performance at last year’s British Open was a fluke Thursday with a bogey-free round.

The 60-year-old echoed his memorable performance from last year at Turnberry by firing a 5-under-par 67 to tie for the lead at the Masters after the first round. The round tied the best of his career at Augusta.

“I keep thinking back to the British Open last year how great he played for 72 holes,” Mickelson said. “The tendency would be to look at his score and think, ‘Well, it was one good round, but we still have three more.’ After what he did at the British Open, you could think, ‘He could keep this up; he’s going to be a real factor in this event,’ and I would not be surprised if he was.”

Watson walked up the 18th fairway minutes after Woods teed off to start his round, and a giant gallery took off following the world’s top-ranked player. Watson walked onto the 18th green to a loud applause after sticking his approach shot to 5 feet. He made the birdie putt, which capped a run of three birdies in his final four holes.

“The beautiful thing about this golf course is that there’s tragedy awaiting you just about on every hole,” said Watson, who hasn’t made the cut at the tournament since 2002 and has only two cuts since 1995. “It’s always there. And you always know it. And that’s what can happen here.”

If either Couples or Watson were to win, they would easily surpass Jack Nicklaus as the oldest Masters winner. Nicklaus won the 1986 Masters at the age of 46.