Charley Hoffman has been a casual player of major championships for a decade. He’s only made half the cuts in the 22 grand slam events he’s contested since 2006. And, yes, this same guy blew the field away in the opening round of the Masters.
On a day when chilly strong winds ripped across Augusta National and left the field scoring average a pinch over 75 with just 12 players breaking par, Hoffman, the journeyman, made it look easy.
He plundered birdies at will and, in the end, he bagged nine of them in his seven under 65, including four in the last five holes.
The 40-year-old leads the Masters after day one by four strokes from fellow American William McGirt, who was a model of consistency in carding a three under 69. England’s Lee Westwood is a further stroke back after he went on a run of five consecutive back nine birdies to finish with 70. A group of eight players are at one under including three-time Masters Champion Phil Mickelson, last week’s winner Russell Henley and English trio Matthew Fitzpatrick, Justin Rose and Andy Sullivan.
The only blemishes to Hoffman’s round came early, when he three-putted twice for bogey, at the par-3 3rd and par-4 5th holes.
The two three-jabs aside, he required only 19 putts for the remaining 16 holes of the round. His iron play was equally as good, as he found 14 of the 18 greens in regulation, with only one bad miss among them.
That came at the par-5 13th hole. Coming off a birdie at the par-3 12th, where he holed an 11-footer at perfect speed, Hoffman took dead aim at the flag from 227 yards but the wind knocked his ball down into the water short, right of the flag. He took his drop, pitched to 10 feet and holed the putt.
More one putts followed at the 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th holes – all yielding birdies.
He had a chance to make if five birdies in a row at the last but his attempt from 16 feet dribbled to a halt two centimetres right of the cup.
The winner of four PGA Tour titles is now in rarified air. He’s never led a major championship. He contended at Augusta in 2015, but a final round 74 saw him drop back into a tie for ninth, which remains his only top-10 finish in 22 major starts.
Hoffman was under no illusion after his extraordinary round that luck played its part.
“(I was) A little bit lucky,” he smiled. “Fortunate I put myself in spots to be able to make putts.
“Doesn't mean you're going to make them out here. I was able to make some longer putts, which you're just trying to die it up there close to the hole, and they were able to go in.”
He added that during the round he felt like it was a dream.
“For lack of any better words, it was a dream,” Hoffman said. “I mean, you hit the shots that you're sort of looking at, and then the hardest part is to convert the putts and I was able to do that and I got some good numbers coming down the stretch and I was able to do that.
“I mean, a few weeks back, I sort of sat back on a week off and asked some people what I needed to do better, and asked myself what I needed to do better, and I just needed to believe a little bit more. I think I'm just starting to believe.
“This game's tough and I'm starting to believe and obviously seeing putts go in and seeing shots where you want them to go helps the belief process a little bit.”
Hoffman confessed when he began the round he thought even par would be a good score given the conditions.
“It was one of those rounds where you could shoot your way out of the golf tournament pretty quick,” he said. “And obviously I was just trying to make pars, and while I was trying to make pars, I put myself in position to be able to make birdies. And I was able to convert those birdies and turn it into a fantastic round.”
The Californian says he feels comfortable playing at Augusta, perhaps more than on any other course.
“Just when I step on the property, I feel good. Visually – I'm a very visual person; visually, it fits my eye,” he said.
“The greens, I don't know why it is, I like to see putts that break. It just feels good when I'm on the greens and on the tees and hitting shots into the green.
“I don't know if it just makes me focus a little bit more out here, but I definitely feel comfortable on this property.”
Hoffman has the opportunity now to run away with the tournament. With strong winds expected again for the second round, if the American can post another sub-70 score from his mid-morning tee time, he might go along way to securing a green jacket to go with this green cap and glove.