Frustrated Nick Faldo had to watch an amateur hit shots he wished he could in an uncertain start to his quest for an unprecented third consecutive Masters title.

Then came six-time champion Jack Nicklaus with his best opening round in the Masters since 1965 - enough to give any history-seeker pause.U.S. Amateur champion Phil Mickelson, who beat Faldo 69 to 72, and 29 other players had a better score than the defending champion under perfect conditions at Augusta National Golf Club in the opening round of the 55th Masters. It was enough to make Faldo snippy and brusque.

After trying to rediscover his putting stroke on the practice putting green, he would only say, "I played good and didn't make the most of it."

Of his chances to get back on his game, Faldo said, "I'll give it a go. I'll give it a go."

Then he snapped, "Have a good day," and left the grounds.

Unanswered were questions about an un-Faldo finish that included two bogeys over the last five holes and a par on a hole many players birdied.

Nicklaus had predicted Faldo would win his third consecutive title if he could beat Nicklaus.

"I'd be surprised if I don't win," Nicklaus said earlier this week.

On Thursday he showed why.

Nicklaus was mentally into his game, saying, "I was as composed on this course as I've been in a long time."

He scrambled early, then settled down for a 4-under-par 68 that put him a shot behind leaders Mark McCumber, Jim Gallagher Jr. and Lanny Wadkins.

Faldo has other world-class players to contend with the final three days, including two-time Masters champion Tom Watson, Fred Couples, Spain's Jose Maria-Olazabal and Jumbo Ozaki, all tied with Nicklaus.

Joining Mickelson at 69 were former U.S. Open champion Scott Simpson, 1990 PGA Player of the Year Wayne Levi and Mark Brooks, who was a fifth-place finisher in the 1990 U.S. Open near Chicago.

There were 22 players who matched Faldo's par. Out of the top 12 players, only two were foreigners. No U.S. player has won at Augusta since Larry Mize in 1987.

It was a bad day for some other foreigners, including Greg Norman, who shot 78; two-time Masters champion Seve Ballesteros, who had 75, and 1988 Masters champion Sandy Lyle, who shot 77.

Mickelson, a senior at Arizona State and playing his first competitive round at Augusta, matched Faldo shot-for-shot, including his eagle on the 465-yard, par-5 No. 13.

Then Faldo fell apart, flubbing a short chip on the 14th and missing a 10-footer for bogey. A poor chip gave Faldo only a par on the 500-yard, par-5 No. 15, a hole Mickelson birdied. Faldo missed the green on 18th and couldn't get it up and down.

Mickelson, who became the first left-hander in history to break 70 at the Masters, said he didn't think Faldo had done unrepairable damage to his chances.

"He's just setting himself up; he's not thinking about just one round; he's very into his game," Mickelson said.

Faldo started out 71-72 last year before he closed with 66-68 to get into a playoff he won over Ray Floyd.

Battling a bad cold, Nicklaus holed an 80-foot sand wedge for a birdie deuce on the 205-yard, par-3 No. 4 to get his round jump-started.

"I never got frustrated or nervous out there," Nicklaus said. "This may be my last chance to win a Masters."

Watson, who brought four putters to the tournament, found one that worked. He also got lucky when a wayward shot on 18 hit a lady in the ankle and kicked toward the green, helping him save par.

"I'm getting into a winning frame of mind," he said. "I haven't felt like this since 1987."

Wadkins and Gallagher each one-putted 11 greens in their early morning rounds in ideal playing conditions. Soft greens and light wind turned Augusta National into target golf.

McCumber, who was second in the 1989 U.S. Open and who played in the afternoon, had a free-wheeling attitude.

"I've got a brand new baby at home just 5 days old and it's going to be a great week no matter what happens," he said.

Faldo was paired with Mize today, but the featured pairing was Nicklaus and Watson, playing together for the second time in four weeks. They shot themselves out of contention in New Orleans in the USF&G Classic.


(Additional information)

Blake opens with 74

Utah's Jay Don Blake shot a 2-over-par 74 in the first round of the Masters on Thursday. The St. George resident was 37-37 in his first appearance at the Masters. Billy Casper, who won the tournament in 1970, shot 37-40-77.