Tiger Woods returns to the Masters ready to give thanks and take back his game
As he stood in the third fairway, the memory of a botched birdie chance at the second hole fresh in his mind, Tiger Woods heard a voice in the gallery. "Welcome back, Tiger."
"Thank you," said Woods. Then he refocused and nailed a low wedge shot with perfect bite to six feet to set up his first birdie of Thursday's first round of the Masters.
After the first "Thank you" of the Tiger II era, Woods unleashed a dazzling round of golf, touched in several places with rust and three missed short putts, but shining all the more brilliantly because he surmounted the effect of a five-month absence. His 68, two shots off the lead, included two eagles, a lipped-out third eagle, three birdies, three bogeys and a score that could have bettered the 66 of first-round leader Fred Couples, 50.
Perhaps Woods has spoken to an individual in his gallery at some time in the last 13 years. Or maybe not. Official dogma: it's inconsistent with his fierce concentration. But Woods vows that, among many changes in his life, he also plans to make amends to the fans that he feels he has "under-appreciated," especially in recent years.
"I said 'Thank you' all the way,' " said Woods. "I was saying 'Thank you' all day."
Perhaps few athletes have ever been more deeply grateful -- and lucky -- for the existence of a particular place and gallery on a day fraught with tension and anticipation.
The most remarkable aspect of this day, aside from the fact that Woods scored two shots lower than in any other opening Masters round of his career, was its easy, comfortable familiarity. "Everything felt normal," he said. Luckily, he said he didn't see a single-engine airplane flying directly in his line of vision before his first tee shot, the same kind that frequently flies streamer banners for local restaurants and such. This time it had a wisecrack message directed at Woods and his escapades but not funny enough to repeat.
Otherwise, how could you calibrate the difference between this and any other Masters Thursday? You'd have to do it in small percentage guesstimates. A few less cheers for his birdies, perhaps, but just as much amazed excitement at his eagles.
On the first hole, when introduced, Woods was met with enthusiasm: cheers and calls of "Go, Tiger" and "Come on, Tiger." And, throughout the early holes of his round, he was greeted warmly, but not quite fanatically, not with the thunderous roars that, even on Thursday, have marked the first rounds of anyone named Arnie, Jack or Tiger. After one fan on the second hole yelled, "Give 'em hell, Tiger," a man nearby said to the woman next to him, "It takes all kinds. 'Give 'em hell?' Come on."
Yet that's exactly what Woods gave 'em. On an afternoon with light rain and a treacherous swirling wind in the pines, Woods reminded the world outside of golf why the arc of his life -- its triumphs and, now, its miseries and mortifications -- matter to so many. No one inside golf ever forgot. If he hadn't missed three putts of five feet or less on the back nine, and lipped out a nine-foot eagle putt at the 13th hole, too, he might conceivably have shot a 33-32 -- 65.
"The tees were up. You could be pretty aggressive. Guys were just tearing this place apart," said Woods. "I hit the ball well all day. If I could have putted well, it could have been a really special round." As if it wasn't unique enough.