High winds and unseasonally cold temperatures made scoring difficult Thursday with the day’s average ballooning to just over 75, the highest for an opening round in a decade.
But the five strong Australian challenge acquitted themselves well enough, Leishman around in 73 while Day and Rod Pampling signed for 74, Scott 75 and the amateur Curtis Luck a disappointing but hard fought 78.
American Charley Hoffman fired an extraordinary 65 to lead by four but that score was an outlier as just 11 players finished the day in red figures.
Reigning Memorial tournament champion Will McGirt was the surprise early leader with a 3-under 69 before being leapfrogged by Hoffman with veteran Englishman Lee Westwood outright third at 2-under 70.
The group at 1-under includes a strong international presence with Sergio Garcia, Andy Sullivan, Matt Fitzpatrick and Justin Rose joining Americans Phil Mickelson, Jason Dufner, Russell Henley and Kevin Chappell.
But while Hoffman’s round was remarkable all the Australians, aside from perhaps Curtis Luck, will feel they are still well in the mix.
Leishman looked particularly impressive for much of the day as he ground out a series of hard fought pars following his only birdie of the day at the par-5 second.
A dropped shot at the 11th and another after a wild approach to the 18th, his worst shot of the day by some margin, were his only blemishes as he finished inside the top 20.
Having won the Arnold Palmer Invitational just a fortnight ago Leishman was a dark horse pick for many this week and he has confirmed that status with his Thursday play.
While Leishman was on the radar for many the play of Jason Day was an unknown given his difficult off course circumstances in recent weeks.
Having received good news about his mother’s surgery late last week he was clearly relieved and better able to concentrate on his game though with interrupted preparations it was difficult to know what to expect.
But Day has proved himself a gritty competitor in recent years and he battled hard all day in what was ultimately a respectable 2-over round.
He made the turn 1-over then made a double at the 11th which he later explained was a perfect example of how difficult conditions were.
“It’s hard and you’ve got to commit to the shot you’re actually hitting,” he told FOX Sports’ Paul Gow after the round. “If you don’t hit that shot, it’s magnified by a hundred.
“An easy one to think about is 11. I was trying to hit a dead straight shot and I was literally only a degree off, if you were looking at it on trackman, which is one second on the clock.
“And it just magnified and turned it over and it went way, way left and went in the water.”
Day said he was pleased with how well he drove the ball and the plan for tomorrow’s round was simply more of the same.
“I didn’t really get anything going even though I drove it well today,” he said.
“I didn’t quite get enough opportunities on the greens close enough which is obviously understandable with what the scores were doing today and the way the course was playing.
“But good to get the birdies on 15 and 16 obviously and trying to just keep grinding. That’s the main goal tomorrow, just keep grinding and try to get yourself somewhere up near the lead.”
Scott’s round was a more volatile affair with six dropped shots against three birdies but his 75 matched the field average for the day and despite being 10 shots back he is far from out of the tournament.
Things started badly for the 2013 champion with a bogey at the first and despite adding a birdie at the difficult par-3 6th he went to the turn 1-over after a second dropped shot at the 9th.
A roller coaster back nine followed for Scott with bogeys coming at 11, 15, 17 and 18 against birdies at 13 and 16.
Most of Scott’s issues came off the tee with his driving below the field average for the day with just eight of 14 fairways found.
Fellow Queenslander Rod Pampling’s four birdie/two bogey effort has him alongside Jason Day at T26 on a course where he has a good track record.
This is Pampling’s fourth appearance at Augusta where he was T5 in 2005 and hasn’t missed the cut and he is on track to keep that record alive with similar weather predicted for tomorrow.
The only Australian likely feeling disappointment at this point in the tournament is the amateur Curtis Luck whose round was derailed by a difficult back nine.
The 20-year-old made the turn a respectable 2-over but fell victim to Amen corner with dropped shots at 11 and 12 then limped home with three straight bogeys.
His only highlight for the day was a birdie at the par-5 13th and while thoughts of victory might be ambitious the West Australian undoubtedly has the game to play his way to the weekend, a worthy feat if he can achieve it.
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