Tiger Woods makes solid if not spectacular start at Masters

Tiger Woods, Masters 2013, first round, Augusta
Simon Bruty / Sports Illustrated
Tiger Woods shot a two-under 70 on Thursday at Augusta.

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- If you're still stewing because limited television coverage prevented you from watching most of Tiger Woods's opening-round 70 at the 2013 Masters, take heart: even the most aggressive and nimble patrons didn't see much, either. A shot here and there, sure, but not much more.

Not at the first tee, where thousands lingered, straining for a peek of Woods as he set off in pursuit of his first green jacket in eight years and first major title since scandal and injury and swing changes left him grasping for some semblance of his former self. Not at the par-5 15th, where patrons 20-deep lined the left side of the fairway to watch Woods play one of the most exciting shots in all of golf. And not back at the short par-4 third, where Johnny Miller, in a mustard baseball cap and tinted wraparound sunglasses, stood on his toes and craned his neck to sneak a glimpse of Woods's ball, which had rolled through the back of the green.

Yes, that Johnny Miller. He's been in Augusta since Monday -- relaxing, schmoozing, taping a couple Golf Channel spots, and on Thursday morning joining the Tiger-craving masses. He's just as curious about Woods as you are.

"It's been a long time," Miller said after he escaped the hordes and strolled back toward the clubhouse. "He's gotta get back on that major train and then keep the momentum going after he gets the one that gets him to 15. But right now it's almost like starting over at zero for him. It's almost like he's trying to get his first one again."

That first one, you'll recall, came at the 1997 Masters. Woods also shot 70 on the opening day of that tournament, before making history with rounds of 66-65-69. Over the next 11 years, 13 more major titles would follow. Then came injury and tabloids and divorce and swing changes and ... what now? We don't know. All we know for sure through 18 holes at this 2013 Masters is that Woods is exactly where he likes to be early in the week: two-under, four back, in the conversation. We'll learn more on Friday. Even more on Saturday. And the most on Sunday, when the pressure is thickest, and Woods is called upon to deliver a hard, going draw, or a left-to-right eight-footer for par.

The biggest surprise Thursday -- at least to Woods -- was the relative shagginess of the greens. "They just didn't have the sheen to them, they didn't have the roll out," said Woods, who needed 30 putts. "A couple of putts, we were talking about it in our group, that just weren't that fast."

That resulted in putts coming up short -- not just for Woods, but also for his playing partners Luke Donald and Scott Piercy. "Certainly this is as slow as I've seen them," said Donald, after a six-birdie 71. "They're not slow, but they're slower than what we're used to."

If Woods is to prevail this week, adjusting to the green speeds is job No. 1. Of late, thanks to some guidance from his pal Steve Stricker, he has been putting like the Woods of old. At both Doral and Bay Hill earlier this year, he drilled 10 to 20 footers with stunning consistency. But Augusta ain't Florida.

"There's just something about Augusta's greens that are one or two notches higher on the skill level and nerve level," Miller said. "I've never seen Tiger yip putts here, but for some reason in recent years here he's just not rolling them in like he used to."

Off the greens, Woods was solid if not spectacular. He hit nine of 14 fairways and 13 of 18 greens in regulation. At the par-5 13th he reached the green in two, then rolled his 60-foot, 90-degree-breaking eagle try to within 6 feet, from where he made birdie.

"Not as tough as years past," Woods said of the putt, "because there's not as much run out. Normally that putt it's hard to get it inside 10 to 12 feet because as soon as it gets towards the front of the hole, there's a little lip there, a little ledge, and it just runs right off of it and there wasn't even any of that fear today of it rolling out like it did."

That birdie took Woods to 3-under and with the reachable par-5 15th still ahead, it seemed likely Woods would climb to at least 4-under. But instead Woods bogeyed the 14th with a three-putt and missed a slippery 4-footer for birdie at the 15th.

"Oooh, he pulled it!" a patron bellowed from high in the grandstand.

So, no, it wasn't the most impressive round for Woods, but maybe the New Tiger will find new ways to win: by hanging around and grinding and refusing to go away. As Woods himself pointed out earlier in the week, even basketball great Michael Jordan couldn't always rely on high-flying pyrotechnics.

"It's M.J. jumping over everybody," Woods said, "and then the next thing you know, he's got a fade-away."

With rain and thunderstorms in the forecast for Friday, conditions will toughen for Woods and Co. in the second round. But tumultuous weather isn't Woods's biggest concern. After speaking with reporters after his round, Woods strolled by the oak tree behind the Augusta National clubhouse and headed directly to the practice green. His caddie, Joe LaCava, handed him a Diet Coke. Woods took a swig, then dropped six balls on the green and went back to work.

His round was over, but his day wasn't.

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