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    Australia's Latest Hope

    Leishman hits from the fairway
    Chris Trotman/Augusta National
    Marc Leishman of Australia hits from the fairway at No. 17 during Thursday's first round.

    Marc Leishman might be an unfamiliar name atop the leader board, but the Australian suddenly feels quite comfortable at Augusta National.

    “Growing up as a kid, you always had the putt to win the Masters. That was on the putting green – ‘This putt’s to win the Masters,’” Leishman said in a press conference after his round. “To be here is awesome, and to be sitting here is pretty cool. It’s only Thursday afternoon, so there’s a lot of golf to play, but I feel good about my game.”

    Leishman, who lives in Virginia Beach, Va., has been a fixture in the top-100 of the PGA Tour money list the past four years, and he received an invitation to the 2013 Masters by winning the Travelers Championship last July.

    Leishman had not played at Augusta since his debut in 2010, and Thursday’s 6-under-par 66 far exceeded his missed cut (72-79–151) back then.

    “The first time I was here, a few years ago, I was like a bit of a deer in headlights,” the 29-year-old said. “I found myself looking around a little bit too much and not concentrating on getting the ball in the hole, which is what you need to do.”

    Thursday, Leishman got the ball in the hole a lot, especially on the second nine. After going even-par through seven holes, he birdied six of his final 11 holes to finish the day with one bogey (on No. 1) and eight birdies.

    His key stretch came midway through the final nine when ran off a streak of four consecutive birdies at Nos. 13, 14, 15 and 16.

    Leishman described that run as “awesome,” but added, “I never really got ahead of myself, because I know that this course can bite you pretty quickly. If you miss it in the wrong spot, you can easily have a bogey, and then double is pretty easy to come by around here.

    “You’ve just got to miss it in the right spots, and I was able to do that today. You know, obviously it felt good to get on a roll with the four birdies in a row.”

    Leishman credits a productive practice round and a laid-back approach as the main reasons for his opening-round success.

    “The turning point for me yesterday, for the week, was I just played the back nine, birdied 10, 11, 12 and then eagled 13,” Leishman said. “And I haven’t been on a run like that ever around this golf course, so it was good to know that it’s possible, because it felt impossible last time I was here.

    “But it’s just been a relaxing week,” he added. “I’ve taken it easy. I’ve only played nine holes every day. I had a really good time in the Par 3 tournament yesterday. I had my wife, Audrey, and (son), Harvey, running around. Mom and Dad were in the crowd; they are over from Australia. That was really good — relaxing, playing with Wayne Grady and Ian Baker‑Finch. We had a really good time, and it was just a good lead‑up to today, I think.”

    In the 77-year history of the Masters, no Australian has ever won the Masters. Greg Norman famously came close in 1986 and again in 1996, when he squandered a six-stroke lead to Nick Faldo. Adam Scott and Jason Day nearly broke through in 2011 with their tie for second place, one stroke behind Charl Schwartzel.

    Asked about the prospect of his ending the Aussies’ drought at Augusta, Leishman acknowledged he’d thought about it.

    “I mean it would be huge obviously, but there’s a lot of golf left and a lot of hurdles to clear,” he said. “But you know if I can keep playing the way I’m playing, keep holing the crucial par putts and just putting the way I have been, there’s no reason why not.”

    Leishman on No. 17
    Chris Trotman/Augusta National
    Leishman tees off
    Chris Trotman/Augusta National