There came a point Thursday afternoon when I decided it was time to chase Tiger at Augusta National. I knew it was the right decision before I’d even gotten close to the 14th green. That’s when the distinctive rumble came from over yonder.
The next leaderboard I saw confirmed it: Tiger Woods had birdied No. 13 to get to 2-under par, one stroke behind the leaders at the time. There was a buzz among the gallery as we gathered around the 14th green, waiting for Woods. It turned into concern when he came into view heading for the trees along the left side of the fairway.
From the green, it appeared the only play for Woods to punch a low shot through the pines. After Woods hit the ball, everyone looked between the trees, expecting the ball to come out low. It didn’t. Had Woods flown the green? A few people ducked and covered.
Then the ball dropped from the sky and plopped down pin high, 25 feet from the hole. Now the buzz was back, followed by anticipation as Woods lined up his putt.
“Let’s get it, Tiger, I want to hear a roar,” someone whispered.
They got what they wanted when Woods made the putt, then turned to their companions to shout: “That’s what we came for!”
Lots of people came here for that. They got what they wanted. Woods was back at the Masters making shots and making them roar.
Woods shot a two-under 70, tied for 11th, four shots behind the leader. Before this tournament Woods said he had a chance, then went out and played like it.
“I feel very good,” Woods said. “I feel like I played well today and I controlled my golf ball all day. I've shot this number and won four coats, so hopefully I can do it again.”
Woods means green jackets, of course, though his memory is a little off. He opened with a 70 while winning the Masters in 1997, ’99, and 2001. He shot 74 on Thursday when he won in 2002.
Woods’ details were fuzzy, but his overall point stands. A good start was essential for him to have a realistic chance of winning this week. He no longer has the game to leapfrog rivals from far back in the pack, and he’s lost the intimidating presence that once brought them back to him.
That’s why it was great to see Woods playing consistent golf at the Masters again. It was fun to see the way he electrifies fans. I want to see him win another green jacket but I’m not letting my imagination run wild, at least not just yet.
To win this tournament, Woods is going to have to play at a level he hasn’t reached in a long time at a major championship. His game has diminished at the same time the field has deepened. Plenty of younger golfers were winning majors while Woods was away mending his injuries and his life and they are here this week.
One of them is first-round leader Brooks Koepka, winner of three majors in the past two years. He’s leading after shooting 66, a score matched by neophyte Bryson DeChambeau.
Woods’ old rival, Phil Mickelson, shot 67. Dustin Johnson, the 2016 U.S. Open Champion, posted a 68. Among those who shot 69 is Adam Scott, the winner here in 2013.
That’s a lot of great golfers for Woods to catch. At least he’s got a chance after the first round. Those people pulling for Woods on the course would have been deflated if he stumbled out of the gate.
That happened when Woods opened with a 73 here last year, his first Masters since 2015. No one really believed Woods, diminished by injuries, could overcome the seven-shot deficit he faced Thursday. He posted a 75 in the second round and finished 16 shots back in a tie for 32nd.
It was a good result for Woods considering the circumstance. It wasn’t what his supporters wanted to see. Those who came back this year got the good stuff from Woods on the first day, and it could have been even better if his putter were sharper.
Woods missed a par putt at No. 5 after he pitched to within seven feet of the pin. A short pitch shot left him with a nine-foot birdie put at No. 8, but he pushed it right. A good chip at No. 17 let to an uphill, eight-foot putt for par but he pushed another one right.
Woods also couldn’t convert a chance to set up an eagle putt at No. 15. He striped his drive 301 yards to the middle of the fairway, leaving him a great chance to attack a tame pin placement 229 yards away. Instead, Woods hit it 40 yards past the hole and had to settle for an up-and-down for par.
That’s three, four, maybe five strokes that Woods left on the course. But, really, that’s just being greedy. It was hard to ask for much more from Woods as he tries to find a way to win a major in the third stage of his storied career.
“I felt like I played well and I did all the things I needed to do today to post a good number,” Woods said.
That’s what the people came to see.
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