AUGUSTA, GA – The sun rose through a narrow opening in a cloudy sky as Tiger Woods approached his first starting point Thursday at the Masters. It cast the area in a kind of glow. But there was no need to highlight.
It already felt like every eye on the courses at Augusta National Golf Club—as well as the millions of other people watching around the world—turned toward Woods, who was making an unlikely return to elite golf 408 days after a horrific and potentially life-threatening accident. One vehicle car.
Nearly five hours later, Woods walked the 18th course to thunderous applause, not only in acknowledgment of his successful return to competitive golf, but also in recognition that he did so on a more than commendable level.
On his first professional run in 17 months, Woods shot a gritty under-71 with three birds and two ghosts. It certainly looked rusty, and many of the normally reliable iron bullets lacked the easily accessible green. He was a stranger off the tee with his driver and played the Augusta National 3 performance in 2 divisions lower and 5 equalis, unlike his usual pattern.
But Woods’ status, which has always been his greatest strength, has repeatedly saved him. He left the eighteenth hole with a smile much wider than the somewhat shy smile he flashed briefly on the first hole.
While Woods did indeed seem out of practice at times, he seemed tough enough to withstand the exhaustion of walking up and down Augusta National’s many hills. However, there were indications that he was making concessions to his surgically reconstructed right leg, which now had a rod, plates, and screws holding it together. He seldom, for example, squatted behind a golf ball as he once did to read strokes close to the level of the playing surface.
On the ninth hole, when Woods left the tee, he noticeably wince as his right leg appears to be landing awkwardly. I grimace through each of the next several steps. While Woods regained a firmer stride after that, he was limping more and more as the day went on.
More than 90 minutes before, Woods confidently walked onto the first tee, where he was met with enthusiastic cheers. After flipping his hat, he pushed the car toward the first lane. But his approach shot, like many of his hits on Thursday, came short. After a modest pitch on the green, Woods experienced the kind of hitting a golfer doesn’t enjoy on the first green—a slippery, 12-foot break. But he sank it evenly, and the porch around the green roared.
He wasn’t sharp on the five-second hole, which was usually a place where Woods could almost rely on a bird, if not an eagle. But a poor shot led to a save, an unexceptional chip and equalizing hits. Three more seasons followed as Woods settled into a relaxed rhythm. Next, Woods hit the high tee into the sixth par-3 slot, masterfully shooting the tee into the air. After a few long seconds, he fell onto the green and came to a quick stop about 18 inches from the hole for an easy birdie.
Fans sit on equal footing around the Augusta National Stadiums, giant white scoreboards everywhere, and watch Woods’ name appear near the top of the leaderboard. More roars.
Leaving the sixth green Woods, he shrugged his shoulders coarsely and covered his mouth—barely—to hide a smile. Competing for the top spot in the Masters Tournament just an hour after his return to the tournament may have seemed out of reach, even to him.
But, starting on the seventh hole, frequent fouls kept Woods scrambling to keep up with the leaders. For five holes, seventh through eleventh, he missed high-quality tee shots when he missed the green with his shots that came close.
Woods saved the tie with a nervous shot on the seventh green, but he didn’t come close to sinking 8 feet on the eighth hole and came out with his first bogey of the round.
On the ninth hole, he pulled his car into the trees on the left of the driveway before leaving another short lane, although again keeping on par with the clutch. He did the same thing as his approach to the eleventh green walked away. He had two quiet poses on the small, treacherous hole 12, then cordoned off hole number 5 after hitting the green with two strokes. This moved it to a level below level for the round.
Another wrong drive in the woods on the next hole brought out the old tiger as he made a fierce pass on the ball to get past some giant pine trees on his way to the green. However, his racket could not save him, and he was back on par with the day with a ghost.
Another missed pass led to a routine equalizer on the par-5’s 15th hole, but Woods, as he had often done in the past, saved a bit of drama for the par-3’s 16th hole as he sank into a 23-foot uphill twisting shot of the Birds. . This sequence also prompted Woods’ first movable grip pump back in the day.
A round in the ’60s wasn’t out of the question, but Woods only managed a routine equalizer on the 17th hole. On the closed hole, another serpentine engine momentarily derailed him. But the tour ended on a boom as he recovered to sink 8 feet and secure a sub-par round.
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