AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — Of all the 6,576 shots that were officially struck at Augusta National on Day 1 of the Masters, only one truly mattered.
It didn’t go in the hole. It wasn’t down the center of the fairway. Nothing special about it at all, really.
Except for the fact that it was off a club swung by Tiger Woods.
With his opening tee shot at 11:04 a.m. Thursday, the Masters was truly back to normal. The full allotment of patrons was crammed into Augusta National to watch a tournament round the first time since the pre-pandemic days of 2019, the year in which Woods won the most recent of his five green jackets. They watched a man who could have lost a leg — or his life — in a car crash 15 months ago return to the spot of his past glory, and albeit moving perhaps a bit more slowly than he used to, chase glory again.
“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 said.
The scorecard said Woods shot a 1-under 71 on Thursday. That’s basically average for Woods at Augusta National; literally, his career average in 91 tournament rounds at the place is 70.9. It is easy for nobody, not even champions, not even five-time champions, especially five-time champions who needed rods and screws and pins a little over a year ago to reassemble a right leg and right foot that were mangled in a car crash. Yet Woods answered the bell and then some Thursday, probably surprising some by playing at all, surprising even more by looking like someone who could contend.
“Just the fact that, one, he’s alive, considering what that accident was about. Two, that he’s made a comeback to this point to be able to compete, it’s phenomenal,” Woods’ longtime friend and incoming U.S. Ryder Cup champion Zach Johnson said. “Now, it’s also a situation where you’re talking about an individual that, I mean, are we really that surprised? … He’s the best player I’ve ever played with, and I say that in all aspects. He is the best competitor I’ve ever witnessed.”
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 past Masters champion Dustin Johnson — were all two shots off the pace after rounds of 3-under 69.
Dustin Johnson won his Masters in 2020. Im and Smith tied for second that year. Thursday, the trio were all on the first page of the leaderboard again, the order slightly adjusted.
“Yes, there is a coincidence there somewhere,” Im said, his mind drifting back to that moment.
Ah, nostalgia. No place does it better than the open-air museum of golf that is Augusta National.
The day started with a nod to tradition, of course: Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus extended their run as honorary starters for the tournament, joined this time by Tom Watson for the ceremonial tee balls off the first tee.
They were all at the Masters Club dinner earlier this week, one of the many perks for past champions. Woods was there as well, after being unable to attend last year while recovering from his injuries. That was Tuesday night. On Wednesday, Woods — who said the previous day that he intended to play — went through his final practice round and decided there was no need to back out.
And on Thursday, there he was, every step he took surrounded by thousands and thousands of people who left the grounds able to say that they saw Woods’ comeback round. The word “roar” might get overused at Augusta National, but that’s what the sound from those patrons sure seemed like.
“At the beginning I noticed that there was a lot of people,” said Joaquin Niemann, one of Woods’ playing partners Thursday along with Louis Oosthuizen. “But then I was trying to talk to my caddie, and I couldn’t hear anything that he was saying.”
Woods was far from vintage. He kept spraying tee shots off to the left. He played a few times from the pine straw. A half-dozen or so approach shots would barely get to the front of the green, then spin back to the fairway, Woods punctuating one of those bad breaks by shouting a profanity that an on-course microphone caught.
Thing is, he got through it. Three birdies, two bogeys. He gave the patrons a fist pump on No. 16 after making a 30-footer for birdie. He had nothing but smiles walking off the course. A night of ice baths and therapy awaited, just to coax his body into deciding it could walk 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 further dry out. It’s going to get harder. It’s going to get tougher.
The roar was back. So were the patrons. So was Tiger Woods.
“This is only one round,” Woods said. “We’ve got three more to go.”
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