This Masters rookie seized the lead alone. What happened next hurt to watch

Nicolai Hojgaard was alone in the lead at the Masters, but Augusta National fought back. Here’s how Amen Corner taught this rookie a lesson.

The post This Masters rookie seized the lead alone. What happened next hurt to watch appeared first on Golf.

Nicolai Hojgaard was alone in the lead at the Masters, but Augusta National fought back. Here’s how Amen Corner taught this rookie a lesson.

The post This Masters rookie seized the lead alone. What happened next hurt to watch appeared first on Golf.

AUGUSTA, Ga. — I know what you were thinking: That Nicolai Hojgaard freaked out. That he saw his name atop the tall, white leaderboard as he walked from the 10th green to the 11th tee, alone in first place at the Masters, his first Masters, seven under par and clear of the field through 46 holes. And for those sitting around at home, you’d be fine making the assumption. 

But the best sports psychologists in the world encourage golfers to not look at leaderboards at Augusta National. Not yet, at least, while much of the tournament still hangs in the balance. Hojgaard had no idea where he stood, even if all of us at home did. It’s a fallacy of golf tournaments. The fans at home are all-knowing. The competitors themselves are not.

But imagine Jim Nantz is telling your story. You’ve imagined this since middle school. You’re still just 23, a rising star from Denmark, and the broadcast is sharing pictures of you and your twin brother. Google is still tabulating the data but about five times as many people are searching for “Nicolai Hojgaard” Saturday afternoon than have ever before. That’s what happens at the Masters: it’s bigger than everything in the sport. Even if you don’t know your specific position nor your TV coverage as you trek up the hill to the 11th tee box, the weight of simply being near the lead can get to you.

So it makes sense, shortly after 5 p.m. local time, that Hojgaard misses his first tee shot as the solo leader of the Masters. The 11th hole is the second-hardest hole on the course, and he pushes his drive out to the right. He has to cut his first approach as the solo leader of the Masters around a tree, in the direction of a pond, and out to the right. He cuts it too much. He pitches on too far. He two-putts for bogey. It happens.

Up next is the scariest par-3 in the world, one he’s played less than 10 times in his life. Zero of those times have come as a co-leader of the Masters. The worst place for a tee shot to land on Augusta’s 12th is obviously the water, but the next worst place is landing in pine straw long of the green, where it settles on a downslope. Another easy bogey. 

On 13, Nicolai hits an approach from the center of the fairway that’s struck well but just not well enough. It goes straight but lands in a particularly painful way — by bouncing on each side of the Rae’s Creek tributary like a pinball before plopping into the drink. He grunts aloud at the result. Another bogey en route. 

Nicolai hojgaard
Nicolai Hojgaard pumps his hand toward the ground during the third round of the 2024 Masters. Darren Riehl

“From 13 onwards, it happened a little bit fast,” Nicolai will say later. It looks fast. Scottie Scheffler has an eagle putt and he’s waiting for you to play your fourth. You chunk the wedge short of the hole and you have to rush across the bridge just to keep pace. Scottie makes it, of course. You had him by two 30 minutes ago. Now he’s got you by two.

A split-second after Hojgaard’s next swing, he’s yelling at it. That’s never good. 

“SOFT!”

But there are no soft bounces out here on the firmest Augusta National we’ve seen in years, decades, maybe ever. It bounds into the pine straw. His stinger from there actually rolls onto the green — the green! — but the 14th green is no fun. It must be the craziest green on the property. The green you bring your friends to see on their first trip to the Masters. Hojgaard’s shot rolls back off the green, thanks to a false front. He pitches over the green with his third, hangs his head, walks around with this putter and makes another bogey. That’s four in a row. 

“If I knew the formula [to fix it], I probably would have done it out there,” he’ll say after the round. But that’s what this week is like for everyone. One long, endless state of discomfort. Confusion. But as difficult as this course has been, what’s lovely about its back nine is it takes and it gives. It asks and it offers. There is always the 15th, a par-5, presenting hope for a reclamation birdie. And from 262 yards in the center of the fairway, Hojgaard grabs the lumber…

… and he’s yelling at it again. Because he can hear the spin he’s put on the ball. The pin is left, calling for a draw, so hearing the spin whistling like crazy means he’s faded it. And hard. 

“GO,” he shouts, pacing after it. 

“GO.”

For the second time in the last 30 minutes, his ball kicks off the grassy bank and into the water. The breaks of the game. Hojgaard’s fourth lands 30 feet short of the hole but kicks forward. He calls for it to bite, but it’s already bit off all it can chew, and trickles off the back. Up and down for bogey. That’s five straight squares on the scorecard.

What does a Masters rookie do when he’s gone from solo leader to tied for 10th in a span of 80 minutes? He pushes forward, keeps Scheffler’s scorecard and tries to stay out of his way. The World No. 1 birdies 15 and 17 and now leads alone, just like Hojgaard did eight holes ago. Hojgaard is five shots back and on Sunday will be three groups back.

Saturday evening at Augusta National is a lovely sight, in part because of the sun pouring through the pines but also because the boys have played pretty quickly. Much quicker than Friday afternoon in the wind. The field polishes off its third round with plenty of daylight left, which for golfers of all skill levels means more time for more swings. The practice range at Augusta National becomes fantastic people-watching. There’s Brooks Koepka with his caddie and his coach, Pete Cowen, still grinding 90 minutes after Mr. Major carded a 76.

There’s Cam Davis, wasting away the minutes before bed, a late tee time awaiting him Sunday. There’s Max Homa, excitedly breaking down his round to his coach, pointing at his chest. The floodlights click on at 7:30. Scottie Scheffler’s dad paces around the back of the range, waiting to watch his son. Collin Morikawa flushes wedge after wedge, his swing looking softer than normal in the fading light. Bryson DeChambeau is searching for a ruler. Yes, a ruler. It’s supposed to help him with his putting. These guys do this so they can sleep at night. 

But on this wide open range there is no Hojgaard. No man in a white jumpsuit caddying for Hojgaard. No doting coach waiting with a bag of balls to figure it out. And maybe that’s what’s best. Only Nico knows what’s best. Tomorrow’s a new day. 

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