AUGUSTA, US: Tiger Woods called on all of his hard-won stamina and the knowledge gleaned in five past triumphs to launch his boldest Masters bid yet with a one-under-par 71 at Augusta National on Thursday.
The 46-year-old superstar, whose February 2021 car crash left him with injuries so severe he feared he might lose his right leg, said just being able to play his first competitive round in 17 months was a victory.
But it might not be the only one he celebrates this week.
“I was able to finish up in the red,” Woods said. “I’m right where I need to be.”
Woods was tied for 10th, four shots behind South Korean Im Sung-jae, who launched his round with three straight birdies and finished with five birdies and an eagle in his 5-under 67.
Australian Cameron Smith, like Im chasing a first major title, was a stroke back after a 68 that was all the more remarkable considering it was bookended by double bogeys at the first and 18th holes.
Woods had indicated as recently as February that he was unlikely to be ready to tee it up in the first major of the year, and said all week that his biggest challenge would be negotiating the hilly, 7,510-yard Augusta National course on his surgically repaired right leg.
“It did not get easier, let’s put it that way,” he said after a round in blustery winds that lasted nearly five and a half hours. “I can swing a golf club. The walking’s not easy.
“With all the hard work, my leg, it’s going to be difficult for the rest of my life.”
Woods said he was buoyed by the adrenaline rush of major competition.
“I mean, the place was electric,” said Woods, who had not played in front of fans at Augusta National since his 2019 triumph ended his 11-year major drought and cemented his return from spinal fusion surgery.
Woods cut a vibrant figure in a hot pink shirt and black trousers, thousands of fans on the course straining to catch his every move.
A 30-minute delay to the start because of pre-dawn thunderstorms only intensified the anticipation for Woods’s appearance on the first tee, where he was greeted with rapturous applause.
Woods was not delighted with his opening drive, which came up short of the right fairway bunker. His approach trickled off the green but he drained a 10-foot par saving putt.
It was just the first par save on a day when Woods hit eight of 14 fairways in regulation and just nine of 18 greens.
“I know where to hit it to a lot of these pins, and I miss in the correct spots and give myself good angles,” Woods said.
After watching a 15-foot birdie putt lip out at the fifth, he stuck his tee shot on the par-three sixth two feet from the pin for his first birdie.
After a bogey at the par-5 eighth — where “three bad shots in a row” were Woods’s biggest disappointment of the day — Woods two-putted from 24 feet for a birdie at 13.
He gave a shot back at 14, but curled in a 29-foot birdie putt at 16 before draining another par-saving 10-footer at the last.
“You just can’t not watch him,” said Smith, who admitted he couldn’t resist taking note of Woods’s progress even as his own remarkable round unfolded.
After his stuttering start, Smith had eight birdies to reach 6-under before he closed with another double.
Meanwhile, first round leader Im — who finished tied for second on his Masters debut in 2020 — powered up the leaderboard with a trio of birdies on his first three holes.
While excited by his first round performance, Im cautioned that he would remain “humble.”
“I realize I still have three days to go,” he said.
England’s Danny Willett, the 2016 Masters champion, Chile’s Joaquin Niemann, world No.1 Scottie Scheffler and two-time major winner Dustin Johnson were in the clubhouse on 3-under.
Niemann, 23, played alongside Woods, and said the crowd was so loud that he couldn’t hear his caddie at the first tee.
Now Woods fans — and to some extent Woods himself — will spend the night wondering what Friday will bring.
“My team has been incredible at getting me into this position so that I can compete,” Woods said. “I’ll take it from there.”
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