Dignity preserved at the Masters

AUGUSTA -- Thursday at the Masters opened gloriously, a new dawn shining on Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus as they shared the first tee for the first time as ceremonial golfers.

They both punched their one and only shot down the right side -- good, solid tee balls that would have been useful in any member-guest scramble. And then they retired for the week, having successfully summoned good, old days.

But make no mistake, the dignity of the Masters was under siege this day.

On the ground, gridlock took hold in the early afternoon around that same first tee. Tiger Woods' arrival was the human equivalent of an overturned tanker on I-285.

Georgia Bulldogs athletics director Damon Evans is somewhat acquainted with crowds. But that is not why he comes to the Masters on its first day.

"I usually come on a Thursday because it's a little quieter. Not today," said Evans, as he moved at the rear of the six-deep gallery lining Woods' way.

And in the air, the assault took on mocking, juvenile tones. A small plane dragging two different anti-Woods messages circled the fringes of Augusta National.

Overheard from a green-jacketed club member as he gazed upward: "I guess there are limits to what Augusta National can do." Doming the course obviously was not a part of this year's budget.

To all this unseemly tumult, the Masters offered the only -- and best -- response that it could muster.

It painted its scoreboard in under-par red numbers, and attached them to some of most appealing names.

Write this message across the sky: Old Guys Rule.

It took a 50-year-old Fred Couples equaling an all-time geezer record to upstage the work of the oldest player in the field, 60-year-old Tom Watson.

With a smooth little 66, Couples seized the first-round lead and tied Ben Hogan for the lowest Masters round by a 50-plus player. Hogan's 66 came in 1967, when he was 54.

Not too shabby for an AARP-eligible fellow who plays sockless and in tennis shoes as part of a remedy for a chronically grouchy back.

"To win Augusta at the age of 50 would be a pipe dream," he said. "Can I still win? Of course."

Watson is among five players one shot back of Couples, after matching his lowest round at Augusta National. He had shot 67 only twice over 119 previous Masters rounds. Thursday was a phenomenal turnaround for a man who has missed the cut in the past seven Masters -- and 11 of the past 12 -- and has not broken 70 here in 13 years.

Making the occasion all the more special, son Michael, who proposed to his fiancée on Augusta National's 13th hole Sunday, was caddying for Watson.

"I think a big part of my success today was having my son on the bag," Watson said. "He said, ‘Dad, show me. Show me you can still play this golf course.' You know what? I wanted to show him I can still play the golf course."

In all, there were 31 sub-par rounds Thursday in defiance of the rainy, blustery conditions. And they were spread all over the chronological scorecard. Sharing the scoring bounty with the old-timers was the youngest player ever to make a Masters start, 16-year-old Italian amateur Matteo Manassero. He went 1-under 71. His mom, however, was not at the finish with a juice box and a snack.

And many of the usual suspects did their part to turn attention away from the Woods sexcapades.

Phil Mickelson, the two-time Masters champion and always reliable Plan B story whenever Woods cedes a headline, shot his most consistent round of the year, a 5-under 67. Ernie Els joined the hunt with a 71. Four former Masters champs -- Woods, Trevor Immelman, Bernhard Langer and Zach Johnson -- all were south of par.

Masters chairman Billy Payne has talked about "a return to the famous and revered roars during our tournament." Thursday, those roars shook the pines.

Woods was a catalyst for many of them. He spanked his first competitive drive in nearly five months past both his playing partners, Matt Kuchar and K.J. Choi (neither one a violet off the tee). And he displayed a shot-making that belied his long layoff.

When Woods hits a tree on a golf course, he can recover much quicker than when he hits one with his car just outside his home. He birdied the par-4 ninth from the forest shadows, shaping a wicked, arcing shot around the treeline onto the green.

Of the day's nine eagles, two of them belonged to Woods. When he was done, he had posted a 4-under 68, and, amazingly, broken 70 in a Masters first round for the first time.

And his game face seemed completely healed. Asked what this day meant to him, Woods answered, "It meant that I'm two shots off the lead. That's what it meant."

Woods claimed he never saw the mocking banners as they passed on the horizon.

If the Masters' first day was an indicator, better to keep all eyes off the sky and on the golf.

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