The scene Thursday was loud and overcrowded, befitting a comeback story of such import. As it was when Woods won here for a fifth time in 2019, he still has a way of moving Augusta National to the brink of chaos, as close to the line as is allowed by the stuffed green jackets here. Massive crowds blanketed every curve and corner of the course he passed. Walking is the hard part for Woods. Walking and trying to see anything Woods does is almost as daunting a challenge for those blessed with a Masters patrons badge.
“That’s something I’m very lucky to have, this opportunity to be able to play and not only that, to play in the Masters and to have this type of reception,” Woods said.
“I mean, the place was electric. I hadn’t played like this since ‘19 when I won because in ‘20 we had COVID and we had no one here, and I didn’t play last year. So, to have the patrons fully out and to have that type of energy out there was awesome to feel.”
Those watching the spectacle inhabited both sides of the ropes.
“I almost felt like a patron out there at some points today,” said Cameron Smith, one back of the lead at 4-under, playing just ahead of Woods. “You can’t not watch him; he’s unreal.”
If warm-ups counted, Woods would have finished this day tragically over par. Reporting to the course early Monday, he labeled his limbering up session “awful.” But, added, “I went back to what my dad always said: ‘Did you accomplish your task in the warmup? It’s a warm-up. Did you warm-up? Now go play.’ That’s exactly what I did, I went and played.’
And played an immensely satisfying round when placed in the context of where he was just over a year ago – stretched out on a bed, the world doubting he’d ever be able to play this convincing of a round of golf ever again.
Playing partners Joaquin Niemann and Louis Oosthuizen preceding him to the first tee box, Woods arrived at his Thursday amid a great uproar, like a reigning champ into the ring.
The misty hangover from a night of rain was clearing, the sun casting an approving glow upon Woods first competitive tee shot since the misplaced Masters of November 2020.
While he came in wearing a bold statement – check out the day-glow fuchsia mock turtleneck – he began his round in rather conservative fashion, playing to the all the smart angles and the below-the-hole savvy that he has acquired over 90 previous Masters rounds.
A 10-foot par-saving putt on No. 1 put him on the track to five straight pars to begin the round. Ah, but when he dropped his tee shot to the par-3 sixth to two feet from the pin, it put a full charge into his massive audience. He was greeted everywhere here as returning royalty, but never louder than during his stroll past the bank of azalea and dogwood leading to the sixth green.
An inventory of his greatest hits:
That tee shot on No. 6.
A classic iron into the par-5 13th, that gave him designs on an eagle but resulted in a tap-in birdie.
A mighty slash out of the pinestraw on No. 14 that confirmed he has no concern over his damaged leg handling the torque of such trouble shots.
Par-saving putts of 10 feet on Nos. 1 and 9.
A 29-foot birdie putt on No. 16.
Lest we forgot, he reminded his public Thursday, “I can swing a golf club.”
The perambulating is the hard part. “The walking’s not easy,” he added. “As I said with all the hard work, my leg, it’s going to be difficult for the rest of my life. That’s just the way it is, but I’m able to do it.”
As far as the misses, Woods pointed to one above all others, a blundering bogey on the par-5 eighth hole, lowlighted by a careless pitch and a missed 7-footer. “Lack of concentration on the first one. Second one, lack of commitment. Then a blocked putt. So just three bad shots in a row,” he said.
Woods seldom has been a quick starter here. In fact, out of 24 opening rounds here, he’s had only eight lower than that 71. His career opening round average here is 72. Under the circumstances, that only makes his round Thursday all the more noteworthy.
At the same time, Woods did not try to hide the physical toil involved in this day.
“I am as sore as I expected to feel,” he said. “But it was amazing, like I was telling the team all week, come game time, it will be a different deal. My adrenaline will kick in. I’ll get into my own little world, and I’ll get after it.
“I’m going to be sore, yes. That’s just the way it is. But the training cycles that we’ve had to make sure that I have the stamina to keep going – and this is only one round. We’ve got three more to go. There’s a long way to go and a lot of shots to be played.”
His day did not end with his 71st shot. Woods said there would be much work to do on that injured leg – “Lots of treatments. Lots of ice baths. Just basically freezing myself to death. That’s just part of the deal. There’s getting all the swelling out as best as we possibly can and getting it mobile and warmed up, activated and explosive for the next day. Those are two totally different ends of the spectrum.”
“Most sports, if you’re not feeling very good, you got a teammate to pass it off to, and they can kind of shoulder the load,” he said, drifting into the philosophical. “Here we’ve got four straight days, and there’s no one that’s going to shoulder the load besides me. I’ve got to figure out a way to do it.”
So, break out the duct tape, the baling wire, the WD-40, whatever it takes. There’s a captivating comeback to keep on track.