Tiger Woods shoots 68 in rousing Masters return, trails Fred Couples by two shots

Phil Mickelson blisters Augusta National with back-to-back 67s on the weekend to beat Lee Westwood by three strokes for his third Masters title.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 9, 2010

AUGUSTA, GA. -- On a day when Tiger Woods's every facial tic was open to interpretation -- Is he forcing that smile? Is he cursing under his breath? -- there was something soothing about Fred Couples ambling up the 18th fairway at Augusta National. Life, to Couples, scarcely seems a concern, and it is instructive that when Woods chose a playing partner for his first public practice round as he returned from exile here, he looked to Couples, because, as fellow pro Jim Furyk said, "You're never really going to bother Freddy."

It will not matter, then, to the 50-year-old Couples -- who opened the Masters by sauntering through a 6-under-par 66 to take a one-shot lead -- that Thursday was about Woods, and in some corners only Woods. Never mind the rather epic story lines that tugged away from that central fact -- Tom Watson, matching the best Masters score of his career with a 67 at age 60, comes to mind. Woods's return, and his performance when he did so, drove an extraordinary day.

"It felt normal," Woods said, but it was not. Woods has been away from competitive golf for nearly five months, and his previous life has been shredded by a sex scandal. But he is still the game's most gifted, focused, disciplined player -- indeed, a legendary athlete and performer. And the turmoil in his personal life has not, apparently, leaked into his golf game. The best score a clear-headed, image-intact Tiger had ever shot in the opening round of the Masters? A 70, four times. His score Thursday, when tabloids were as likely as sports pages to report the results? A 4-under 68 that put him two shots back of Couples.

"I was just pretty calm all day," Woods said. "I felt that I was just trying to plod my way along and not throw away shots."

Ho-hum. In another year, Woods's performance would have been noted as central to the tournament because it established him as a contender. He trails a star-studded group at 5 under that includes not only Watson, but two-time Masters champ Phil Mickelson, PGA champion Y.E. Yang -- the only man to overtake Woods on the final day of a major -- as well as Englishman Lee Westwood and South Korea's K.J. Choi, both accomplished players.

But in any other year, Woods, with four Masters titles, would have certainly ceded the Thursday stage to Watson -- who conjured memories of his near win in the British Open last summer -- and Couples, who is a rookie on the Champions Tour, a veteran here, the winner in 1992.

"For me to be 6 under and him to be 5 under," Couples said, "it's a great start for the older guys."

Yet from the moment Woods walked through a phalanx of 10-deep fans and arrived at the practice green at 1:30 p.m. -- preceded by two uniformed police officers, trailed by three security guards -- the build-up from his nearly five-month absence was apparent. His first shot, a beautiful fade, landed on a fairway completely surrounded by galleries.

"The reception was incredible," Woods said.

Soon after, the distractions -- a plane flying overhead dragging a sign that read, "Tiger: Did you mean Booty-ism?!" -- a snide reference to Woods's public pledge to return to his Buddhist faith -- dropped to the background. Golf took over. Any questions about that were dismissed afterward, when Woods was asked what Thursday meant.

"It meant that I'm two shots off the lead," he said. "That's what it means."

Nothing more?

"I'm here to play a golf tournament," he said.

So he did. Woods made his first birdie at the third, pumped his right fist after an eagle at 8, and made an otherworldly birdie at 9, converting a drive that had been knocked down by a tree into a smoking, hooked 5-iron from 207 yards out that snuggled just past the back left pin. He made an eagle putt of perhaps 10 feet at 15, and simply raised his hand in the air to celebrate.

"First putt I made all day," he said, and indeed, his round might have been, as he said, "special," had he putted better.

The putting, it seemed, was left to Watson and Couples, who each needed only 24 putts all day, fewest in the field. When Woods got to the first tee, Watson was on the 18th, completing a more surprising round under more serene circumstances. Last year, Watson led the British on the 72nd tee, but lost in a playoff. Then, he spoke almost mystically about being comfortable with his surroundings in Turnberry, Scotland. He has no such sense at Augusta. He has missed the cut 11 of the past 12 years here, and had broken par just once in that time. His last round here: an 83 last year, his worst Masters score ever.

But Watson arrived with what he called "a certain glow about the whole situation" regarding Turnberry. On his bag this week, he put his 27-year-old son Michael, who had never caddied for him in an official event before. On Sunday, the Watsons played a practice round at Augusta National, and Michael used the occasion to propose to his girlfriend -- right near the creek on the 13th hole. Later, Michael delivered a message to his father.

"He said, 'Dad, show me. Show me you can still play this golf course,' " Tom Watson said. "You know what? I wanted to show him I can still play the golf course."

Watson opened with a 25-foot putt to start his tournament with a birdie, and he got up-and-down on five consecutive holes to open the back nine. By the time he curled in a lovely little birdie putt at the last, he had shown his son exactly how to get around Augusta National.

"I think he's out here to win," Michael Watson said. "He's not out here just to make the cut."

Nor is Couples.

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

But so, too, can Woods. That much seems to have been answered Thursday. He may have more on his mind than the carefree Couples and the wise old Watson combined. But he was able to say, for the first time in a hellish while, "I feel like I'm in the right spot."

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