August, Georgia – The sun appeared through a narrow crevice in a cloud-filled sky as Tiger Woods approached the first one on Thursday at the Masters Tournament. It illuminated the area. But the searchlight was not needed.
It was already felt that all eyes on the site of the August National Golf Club – as well as millions of others around the world – turned to Woods, who made an incredible return to luxury golf 408 days after the horrific, potentially life-threatening car crash.
About five hours later, Woods climbed the 18th fairway to loud applause, not only acknowledging his successful return to golf, but also acknowledging that he had done so at a more than commendable level.
In his first professional round in 17 months, Woods shot a tough, brave 71st with three birds and two scarecrows. It certainly looked rusty, and many of its usually sturdy iron shots lacked easily accessible greenery. He was chaotic from the tee with his driver and played in par 3 in Augusta National for two less and in par 5 on even, contrary to his usual scheme.
But the reliance of Woods, always his greatest strength, repeatedly saved him. He left the 18th hole with a much wider smile than the somewhat timid one he briefly flashed on the first hole.
While Woods did look a little inexperienced at times, he seemed resilient enough to withstand the compulsion to walk up and down the many hills of Augusta National. There were, however, indications that he was making concessions with his surgically restored right leg and foot, which now have a rod, plates and screws holding them together. For example, he rarely squatted behind his golf ball, as he once did, reading strokes close to the level of the playing surface.
On the ninth hole, when Woods left the tee, he shrank noticeably as his right leg seemed to land awkwardly. He grimaced through each of the next steps. While Woods resumed his pace after that, he limped more and more over the course of the day.
More than 90 minutes before that, Woods confidently stepped out on the first tee, where he was greeted with enthusiasm. Tilting his cap, he moved towards the first fairway. But his suitable shot, like many he inflicted on Thursday, proved short-lived. After a mediocre pass to the green, Woods faced a blow that the golfer did not like on the first green – a slippery 12-footer. But he sank it to balance, and the gallery around the green roared.
It wasn’t as sharp on the par-5 second hole, which was usually a place where Woods could almost count on a bird if not an eagle. But a defective shot resulted in a save, a non-exclusive chip and a pair with two strikes. After Woods settled into a comfortable rhythm, three more couples took place. Then, striking from the raised tee into the sixth hole of the par-3, Woods skillfully led his trio high into the air. After a few long seconds it fell to the green and quickly stopped about 18 inches from the hole to a light bird.
Fans at Augusta National’s venue, where giant white boards are everywhere, watched as Woods ’name appeared at the top of the list of leaders. Still roaring.
Coming out of the sixth green, Woods shrugged obscenely and covered his mouth to barely hide a smile. Perhaps the fight for leadership at the Masters just an hour after his return to the tournament seemed even to him a little far-fetched.
But since the seventh hole, repeated mistakes have forced Woods to keep up with the leaders. For five holes, from the seventh to the 11th, he wasted quality punches when he missed the green with his approach.
Woods kept along with the nerve pot on the seventh green, but he didn’t come close to drowning the 8-foot pot on the eighth hole of the par-5 and came out with his first whip round.
On the ninth hole he rushed to the trees to the left of the fairway before leaving another approach, although he again saved along with the impact of the clutch. He did the same when his approach to the 11th Green went wayward. He had a fruitless pair-pot-pair on the tiny, treacherous 12-hole and then in the pair-5 13th hole, reaching the green in two strokes. This moved him one less round.
Another erroneous trip into the woods on the next pit brought to the eye of the old Tiger when he fiercely struck the ball to carry it through several mammoth pines on his way to the green field. His club, however, could not save him, and he returned on an equal day with a whip.
Another missed fairway led to a regular pair on the 15th hole of the par-5, but Woods, as he has so often done in the past, retained a little drama for the par-3 of the 16th hole when he dropped a turnaround to 23 feet up the hill for a birdie. This sequence also led to the creation of Woods ’first animated fist of the day.
The round in the 60s was not ruled out, but Woods only managed a regular pair on the 17th hole. On the closing hole, another bloody disk knocked him off the rails for a moment. But the round was a success when he recovered to sink an 8-foot kick and secure a round below par.