Northern Ireland’s Matthew McClean makes early gain as Masters gets under way

Northern Ireland’s Matthew McClean makes early gain as Masters gets under way

Northern Irish amateur Matthew McClean enjoyed a dream start to his Masters debut as the year’s first major began at Augusta National.

The 29-year-old optometrist, who secured his place in the field by winning the US Mid-Amateur, hit a superb approach to the opening hole and converted the birdie putt from four feet to top the early leaderboard.

Honorary starters Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tom Watson had officially got the 87th Masters under way 30 minutes earlier.

The illustrious trio, with 11 Masters titles between them, hit tee shots on the opening hole before retiring to the clubhouse.

Watson, who was taking part in the ceremony for the second time, unusually teed his ball up with his right hand.

In reference to an accident in November which resulted in the 73-year-old undergoing shoulder surgery, he joked: “You don’t drive go-karts at my age!”

Tom Watson
Tom Watson watches his ceremonial first tee shot ahead of the 87th Masters (Mark Baker/AP)

Former champion Sandy Lyle was among the early starters in the tournament proper in his last event before retiring, with five-time winner Tiger Woods getting his 25th Masters under way at 1018 local time (1518 BST).

Woods has always insisted that winning was his only reason for entering a tournament, even when making one of his numerous comebacks from lengthy injury lay-offs.

That was the case in 2022 when he competed in the Masters less than 14 months after suffering severe injuries in a car accident, the 15-time major winner simply answering “I do” when asked if he believed he could win.

But a year on Woods had been noticeably less bullish in his pre-tournament press conference, talking more about being able to “appreciate the time that I have here and cherish the memories”.

Rory McIlroy, after a nine-hole practice round with Woods, said: “You know, if he didn’t have to walk up these hills and have all of that, I’d say he’d be one of the favourites.

“He’s got all of the shots. It’s just that physical limitation of walking 72 holes, especially on a golf course as hilly as this.”

While Woods was among the early starters on Thursday, McIlroy faced a lengthy wait before getting his ninth bid to complete the career grand slam by winning the Masters under way.

McIlroy, who finished second to Scottie Scheffler last year after a stunning closing 64, was due to tee off in the penultimate group at 1348 local time (1848 BST), with Scheffler starting 12 minutes earlier in his bid to join Woods, Nick Faldo and Nicklaus in winning back-to-back titles.