STEPHEN GALLACHER got off to a superb start on his Masters debut and then revealed that his first-tee nerves at Augusta National were nothing like they were playing in the event’s Par 3 contest.
The Lothians star ended the opening day of the season’s first major as the leading UK player along with two-times major winner Rory McIlroy as they carded one-under 71s.
It was a terrific effort by Gallacher on a day when pin positions were difficult – the wind was also swirling down in Amen Corner – and earned him a share of 12th spot, just three shots behind pacesetter Bill Haas.
“I was actually pretty relaxed – I thought I’d be worse than I was,” said the 39-year-old when asked how he felt on the first tee, where earlier in the day the ceremonial opening shots had been hit by Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.
“In actual fact, I was more nervous playing the Par 3 contest yesterday,” he added. “In that, the people were sitting on the edge of the green and I was thinking, ‘Jesus, I hope I don’t hit anyone!’ ”
No-one was in danger of being struck by Gallacher’s opening blow in the main event in the company of Darren Clarke and Nick Watney, as it was a peach.
It helped him make a solid par to start and the first birdie in his Masters career quickly went down on the card at the par-5 second following a lovely escape from a greenside bunker.
A terrific tee shot at the sixth set up his second gain of the day and, after also picking up a birdie at the ninth to be out in 33, he was sitting second on his own as he turned for home.
A wayward drive – his only poor shot of the day – led to a bogey at the tenth and two more followed straight afterwards.
But, after steadying the ship with a couple of pars, the Bathgate man birdied the 15th – it could easily have been an eagle after a majestic second – then almost holed out from a greenside bunker at the last.
“It was good to get off to a solid start and I played well throughout the front nine,” he admitted
“If I missed it, I missed it on the right side. I hit a couple of poor putts but my only poor shot was the drive the tenth, where I just didn’t hook it enough.”
Told it was close to the spot where Bubba Watson made a miraculous recovery when he won here two years ago, he replied: “Was it?
“If I’d had the gun at my head I’d have tried to hit an 8-iron over the top, but at three-under it wasn’t worth going for. I just took my medicine and ended up making a good bogey.”
With former Hibs chairman Ken Lewandowski among those cheering him on, Gallacher hit one of the shots of the day into the 15th green.
“I had 205 yards and hit a 5-iron,” he said of an effort to no more than three feet, which he missed unfortunately, but was happy to see the next one going in as it was no gimme.
“It was one of those ones that was a shoe-in eagle but I was happy to settle for a birdie in the end,” he admitted.
He was also happy with his position at the end of the opening day, insisting he’d never looked to see where he was sitting on the iconic giant scoreboard next to the 18th green as he came off the adjacent ninth green.
“It’s Sunday when you want to see your name up there,” he declared, though there’s no doubt he’d have settled to be within striking distance of the lead after his first trip round this notoriously difficult course.
“I was going to enjoy today no matter what I scored as I’ve come here not feeling any pressure or having any expectation,” he insisted.
Another couple of rounds like this one, though, and that may change.
Haas recovered from an opening bogey to bag six birdies as he carved out a one-shot lead over defending champion Adam Scott, 2012 winner Bubba Watson and Louis Oosthuizen, the 2010 Open champion.