AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — Of all the 6,576 shots that were officially hit at Augusta National on day one of the Masters, only one really counted.
He didn’t go down the hole. It was not in the center of the fairway. Nothing special about it, really.
Except for the fact that it was a club swung by Tiger Woods.
With its first tee shot at 11:04 a.m. Thursday, the Masters was truly back to normal. The full batch of patrons were crammed into Augusta National to watch a tournament for the first time since the pre-pandemic days of 2019, the year Woods won the most recent of his five green jackets. They saw a man who could have lost a leg – or his life – in a car accident 15 months ago return to the place of his former glory, and although perhaps moving a little slower than before, pursue glory again.
“If you had seen how my leg looked like where it is now…to get from there to here was not an easy task,” Woods said.
The scoreboard shows Woods shot a 1-under 71 on Thursday. It’s basically average for Woods at Augusta National; literally, his career average in 91 tournament rounds on location is 70.9. It’s easy for no one, not even champions, not even five-time champions, especially five-time champions who needed rods, screws and pins a little over a year ago to put a straight leg up and a mutilated right foot in a car accident. Still, Woods answered the bell, then on a Thursday, likely surprising some by playing at all, surprising even more by looking like someone who might struggle.
“Just the fact that, number one, he’s alive, considering what that crash was. Number two, that he’s come back to this point so he can compete, that’s phenomenal,” said longtime friend Zach Johnson. Woods date and new American Ryder Cup champion. “Now it’s also a situation where you’re talking about an individual who, I mean, are we really surprised? … He’s the best player I’m playing with. played, and I say that in every aspect. He’s the best competitor I’ve ever seen.”
Sungjae Im was the first round leader, shooting a 5-under 67. Cameron Smith was second, one shot back with a 68, and four players – Danny Willett, Joaquin Niemann, world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler and the former Masters champion Dustin Johnson – were both behind after 3-under rounds at 69.
Dustin Johnson earned his master’s degree in 2020. Im and Smith tied for second that year. On Thursday, the trio were once again all on the front page of the leaderboard, the order slightly adjusted.
“Yes, there is a coincidence somewhere,” Im said, his mind returning to that moment.
Oh, the nostalgia. No place does it better than the open-air museum of golf that is Augusta National.
The day began with a nod to tradition, of course: Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus extended their run as the tournament’s honorary starters, joined this time by Tom Watson for the ceremonial teeing off points for the first start.
They were all at the Masters Club dinner earlier this week, one of many perks for former champions. Woods was also there, having been unable to attend last year as he recovered from his injuries. It was Tuesday evening. On Wednesday, Woods – who had said the day before that he intended to play – took his final practice lap and decided there was no need to back down.
And on Thursday, there he was, with every step he took surrounded by thousands and thousands of people leaving the scene able to say they had seen Woods return. The word “roar” might be overused at Augusta National, but that’s what these patrons sounded like.
“At first I noticed it was very crowded,” said Joaquin Niemann, one of Woods’ playing partners on Thursday with Louis Oosthuizen. “But then I was trying to talk to my caddy and I couldn’t hear anything he was saying.”
Woods was far from vintage. He continued to spray tee shots to the left. He played pine straw a few times. A half-dozen approach shots barely made it to the front of the green and then returned to the fairway, Woods punctuating one of those bad breaks by shouting a profanity that a microphone on the course picked up.
The thing is, he got away with it. Three birdies, two bogeys. He gave the patrons a fist pump on the No. 16 after going 30 feet for a birdie. He had nothing but smiles as he exited the course. A night of ice baths and therapy awaited him, just to persuade his body to decide it could play 18 more holes on Friday. He plays in the afternoon, when it’s supposed to be very windy. A course that took about 3 inches of rain on Tuesday and Wednesday will dry out further. It will get harder. It will get harder.
The roar was back. Patrons too. Just like Tiger Woods.
“It’s just one round,” Woods said. “We have three more to go.”
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