AUGUSTA, Ga. — The sun emerged through a narrow opening in a cloud-filled sky as Tiger Woods approached the first tee on Thursday at the Masters Tournament. It casts the area in a kind of glow. But the spotlight was not needed.
It already felt like every eye on the grounds at Augusta National Golf Club — as well as millions of others watching around the world — had turned toward Woods, who was making an improbable return to elite golf 408 days after a horrific, potentially life-threatening single-vehicle car crash.
Roughly five hours later, Woods marched up the 18th fairway to resounding applause, not only an acknowledgment of his successful return to competitive golf, but also recognition that he had done so at a more-than-commendable level.
In his first professional round in 17 months, Woods shot a gritty, plucky one-under-par 71 with three birdies and two bogeys. To be sure, he looked rusty, and many of his usually dependent iron shots came up short of easily reachable greens. He was erratic off the tee with his driver and played Augusta National’s par 3s in two under and the par 5s in even par, the reverse of his usual pattern.
But Woods’s putting, always his greatest strength, repeatedly saved him. He left the 18th hole with a far wider smile than the somewhat timid one he had briefly flashed on the first hole.
Afterward, Woods was thankful, and his usual competitive self. He was already looking forward to moving up the leaderboard as the tournament continued.
“I’m right where I need to be,” Woods, who was tied for 10th, said of his position (Sungjae Im led the field on Thursday with a five-under 67). Of the thousands of fans who flocked to every hole he played, he said: “The place was electric. I’m very lucky to have this opportunity to be able to play and to have this type of reception.”
While Woods indeed looked a bit out of practice at times, he seemed hardy enough to withstand the duration of walking up and down Augusta National’s many hills. There were, however, signs that he was making concessions to his surgically rebuilt right leg and foot, which now has a rod, plates and screws holding it together. He rarely, for example, squatted behind his golf ball as he once did to read putts close to the level of the playing surface.
On the ninth hole, as Woods left the tee, he noticeably winced as his right leg appeared to land awkwardly. I have grimaced through each of the next several steps. While Woods regained a steadier stride thereafter, he limped more and more as the day went on.
“The walking is not easy; it’s difficult,” he said. “It’s going to be difficult for the rest of my life. That’s just the way it is, but I’m able to do it.”
Not one to accept a partial victory, Woods nonetheless conceded that just being at Augusta National and completing 18 holes was triumph enough. Asked why, he said: “If you would have seen how my leg looked to where it’s at now — to get from there to here, it was no easy task.”
Woods began his day with a confident march onto the first tee, where he was met with enthusiastic cheers. After tipping his cap, I hammered a drive toward the first fairway. But his approach shot, like many he struck on Thursday, came up short. After a mediocre pitch onto the green, Woods faced the kind of putt no golfer appreciates on the first green — a slippery, breaking 12-footer. But he sank it for par, and the gallery around the green let out a roar.
He was not as sharp on the par-5 second hole, which had typically been a place where Woods could almost count on a birdie, if not an eagle. But an inferior tee shot led to a bailout, an unexceptional chip and a two-putt par. Three more pars ensued as Woods settled into a comfortable rhythm. Then, hitting from an elevated tee on the par-3 sixth hole, Woods artfully powered his tee shot high into the air. A few long seconds later, it dropped onto the green and came to a quick stop roughly 18 inches from the hole for an easy birdie.
Fans around the Augusta National grounds, where the giant white scoreboards are omnipresent, watched as Woods’s name appeared near the top of leaderboard at one under par. More roars.
Leaving the sixth green, Woods shrugged his shoulders impishly and covered his mouth to—barely—conceal a grin. Perhaps contending for the lead at the Masters only an hour after his return to the tournament seemed a little far-fetched, even for him.
But, beginning with the seventh hole, recurring errors had Woods scrambling to keep up with the leaders. For five holes, from the seventh to the 11th, he squandered quality tee shots when he missed the green with his approach shots.
Woods saved par with a nervy putt on the seventh green, but he did not come close to sinking an 8-foot par putt on the par-5 eighth hole and exited with his first bogey of the round.
On the ninth hole, he yanked his drive into the trees left of the fairway before leaving another short approach, though he again saved par with a clutch putt. He did the same when his approach to the 11th green went wayward. He had an uneventful two-putt par at the tiny, treacherous 12th hole, then birdied the par-5 13th hole after reaching the green in two strokes. That moved him to one under par for the round.
Another errant drive into the woods on the next hole brought out the Tiger of old as he took a ferocious swipe at the ball to get it over some mammoth pine trees in his path to the green. His putter, however, could not save him, and he fell back to even par for the day with a bogey.
Another missed fairway led to a routine par on the par-5 15th hole, but Woods, as he has so often in the past, saved a little drama for the par-3 16th hole as he sank a twisting, uphill 23-foot putt for birdie. That sequence also prompted Woods’s first animated fist pump of the day.
A round in the 60s was not out of the question, but Woods managed only a routine pair on the 17th hole. At the closing hole, yet another crooked drive derailed him momentarily. But the round finished with a flourish as he recovered to sink an 8-foot putt and secure an under-par round.
Leaving the final hole, Woods, a five-time Masters champion, seemed to be almost giving the rest of the field a warning.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” he said of the tournament. “This golf course is going to change dramatically — cooler, drier, windier. It’s going to get a lot more difficult.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism