Tiger's return highlights magical day at Augusta

Tiger’s return highlights magical day at Augusta

Tiger Woods was well received by the patrons on Thursday.
Robert Beck/SI

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Tiger Woods came back from scandal, a months-long exile and a verbal spanking from the Masters Tournament chairman to shoot a four-under 68 that could’ve been even better.

He showed, after all the speculation and talk, that he is quite ready to challenge for a fifth Masters title. It was business as usual for Woods at Augusta, especially the way he dominated the par 5s, making eagles at Nos. 8 and 15, the first time he’d ever made two eagles in the same Masters round.

Tiger’s long-awaited return would’ve been enough for any given Thursday, but there was more, so much more.

Fred Couples, age 50, shot six-under 66 to take the first-round lead. Tom Watson — sorry, make that The Legendary Tom Watson — wasn’t all that far from shooting his age. The 60-year-old shot five-under 67. The rest of the leaderboard bore a resemblance to the world rankings: Phil Mickelson, Y.E. Yang, Lee Westwood and K.J. Choi were tied with Watson in second place at five under. Ian Poulter, Anthony Kim, Trevor Immelman, Adam Scott and Zach Johnson were among the big names a few shots back. That’s serious starpower.

Two other over-50 players, Bernhard Langer (71) and Sandy Lyle (69), also broke par. Soft, receptive greens and forgiving pin locations offset windy afternoon conditions and led to a birdie-fest.

So the start of the 74th Masters featured Tiger’s impressive return, big names and low scores. Somebody write this recipe down for the rest of the week along with these instructions: Repeat three more times.

Couples did his best to steal some of the spotlight from Woods. Fresh off three Champions Tour wins, Couples played like a man 20 years younger. He drove it straight and long, hit sharp irons and putted well. Amazing. What else can you say?

“It’s just happening,” Couples said. “Putting has become the best thing in my game. Then I can be more of an attack player. I’m not surprised but I’m thrilled. There’s just something in the air that makes me feel like I’m going to play well when I come here.”

Couples made seven birdies and made it look easy. He missed a short but hard-breaking birdie putt on the last hole, but his 66 was still the lowest score he’s ever put up at Augusta National. His coolest play had to be saving par from the bushes left of the 10th green, where he bumped a 7-iron chip shot to three feet.

For a guy who played sockless (his comfy golf shoes feel like tennis shoes, and Fred says he never wears socks with his tennis shoes), it was quite a show.

Still, the remarkable run by Couples couldn’t overshadow the sport’s biggest day of 2010 — Tiger’s return. You knew it was going to be special from the size of the gallery jammed around the first tee, waiting to catch a glimpse of Tiger for his 1:42 tee time. It’s doubtful a bigger crowd has ever surrounded that tee.

You also knew it was going to be a unique day when an airplane began circling overhead at 1:30 p.m., moments after a wave of applause announced Tiger’s walk from the clubhouse to the putting green. The plane pulled a large banner that read, “Tiger, did you mean bootyism?” The plane circled back around just as Woods got to the first tee. Woods said later that he never noticed the plane or its banner, but it would’ve been hard to miss.

For the record, Tiger busted a perfect drive down the middle of the first fairway, which by then had a yellowish tint from tiny tree droppings that were blown by gusty winds and covered the fairway. The assembled press corps tried unsuccessfully to describe them, but they’re brown, about an inch long and kind of fluffy. Blossoms? Not exactly. But they were everywhere.

Woods tried to hit a careful cut with his driver on that first shot, just to make sure he got the ball in play. It worked so well that he did it most of the day. If he drives it this well for an extended period of time, he will be very tough to beat. Woods played a nice approach and just missed the birdie putt. For the record, his playing partners, Matt Kuchar (70) and K.J. Choi (67), did just fine despite the crowds.

At the par-5 second, his 5-wood second shot came up short and right, and he tried to use the new backstop on the redesigned second green to get his flop shot close. His ball carried a few feet too far — a little rust? — and the ball didn’t catch the slope. That left him a slick downhill putt, and he settled for par.

He got his first tournament birdie of 2010 on the short par-4 third. Another perfect drive, followed by a low spinning approach shot that stopped inside four feet. He made the putt.

By this time, there was little doubt that Tiger’s game was in fine form. He played a low 5-wood shot at No. 4, a 240-yard par 3, that was so good that it cut right through the wind and went just long. It was a dicey chip but no problem. Woods got it close and made par.

There were more classic Tiger moments. He hit it close in two at the eighth for an easy eagle. At nine, he was a bit more spectacular. His drive caught a branch down the left side of the fairway, leaving him blocked by trees. He sweep-hooked a 5-iron shot around the trees and landed the ball just in front of the green. It ran to the back fringe, where it caught the slope and backed up toward the cup. He holed the 10-footer for an unlikely birdie — well, unlikely unless you’re Tiger Woods.

You’ll see the replay of that shot over and over this week. After he hit it, Woods scissor-stepped to his right once, then four more times, then broke into a jog as he attempted to get a look at the result. It was vaguely reminiscent of Sergio Garcia’s shot from behind a tree at Medinah in the 1999 PGA Championship.

“I was surprised it held the green,” Woods said. “That was the first putt I made all day, just about.”

He made two bogeys on the back nine, which negated some solid play and another eagle, this one from six feet at the 15th after he hit a massive tee shot. His eagle putt at the 13th power-lipped out, and he also had near misses at 10, 12, 14, 16 and 18, to name a few.

So forget about the five-month layoff. Look out for Mr. Woods.

“I’m very pleased, I hit it well all day,” Woods said. “I had one loose shot on 14, then I made a sweet pitch and I should’ve made that putt. I didn’t putt very well today or it could’ve been a pretty special round.”

Most people would’ve thought a 68 after what Tiger has been through would qualify as a pretty special round, but he’s right — it could’ve been lower.

“I was looking at all the scores; guys were tearing the course apart today,” he said. “Most of the tees were up, especially on the par 5s, so if you drove the ball in the fairway, you could be pretty aggressive. You’ve got 30-some guys under par. I feel like I’m in the right spot, but there are so many guys up there, anybody can still win this event.”

On this Thursday, Tiger answered the question. He is back. All the way back? We’ll see.

At times, he did live up to his pledge to be a kinder, gentler, more fan-friendly player. He smiled and waved after he made that birdie putt at the ninth, mouthed “Thank you” to the gallery, and tipped his cap while adjusting it. He had a few tantrums, but they were minor compared to what we’ve seen from him in the past.

At the 11th, he didn’t like his tee shot and slammed the driver head into the ground and uttered an audible “God—–t!” When he pulled his approach shot badly at the 14th, he simply let his club drop from his hands after his follow through and chided himself, “Noo!” His celebrations were subdued, too, but Tiger doesn’t normally go wild in the first round. The tournament isn’t at stake yet. There’s no one to intimidate or scare yet. No need for theatrics.

Woods wasn’t going to let on that this was anything but just another day at the office.

“It felt normal,” he said. “I was pretty calm all day. I was just trying to plod along and not throw away shots.”

He’s wrong about it feeling like a normal Thursday at the Masters. There was Tiger. Watson. Phil. Fred. Airplanes with banners. Ovations for Tiger at tee boxes and along fairways. Birdies and eagles. It was anything but a normal Thursday. It was a day to remember.