Tiger Woods ensured the story did not fall flat on his return to the Masters


Trust Tiger Woods to make sure the story didn’t fall flat. Trust the miracle man to conjure up yet another from his seemingly inexhaustible supply.

What a day for golf, heck what a day for sport. We began this 86th Masters wondering whether his body could cope and how much game he had left at the age of 46 and after so long laid up.

Here was a display that assuaged such doubts and fears, a stunning one-under-par round of 71 that left him just three shots off the early lead, held by Australian Cameron Smith. At the 18th they rose in unison to give Tiger a standing ovation, and never was one more heart-rending, more deserved.

Tiger Woods carded a statement opening round of 71 at the 86th Masters on Thursday

At the 18th they rose in unison to give the five-time champion a heart-rending standing ovation

At the 18th they rose in unison to give the five-time champion a heart-rending standing ovation

After 14 hours of almost continual thunderstorms, leading to two hours of grey skies and drizzle, what happened as Tiger made his way through the vast crowds to the first tee for one of the most eagerly anticipated opening rounds in Masters history? The sun came out. Of course it did.

Could Tiger add a speck of white to the glorious emerald fairway now bathed in a celestial light? Unlike so many opening drives in his prime, which invariably went to the left, this one missed on the right, though not in a bad spot according to his gallery.

In the time it took Tiger to walk 280 yards, those gathered nearby had worked out every permutation imaginable for his next shot. ‘Play to the front of the green, chip and putt and get out of there, no problem,’ said one. ‘A bogey’s never a bad score on the first,’ reckoned another, less optimistic voice.

Woods missed his opening tee shot on the right but managed to salvage a par on the first

Woods missed his opening tee shot on the right but managed to salvage a par on the first

When Tiger finally came into view, there was plenty of comment about his fuchsia pink shirt. ‘Imagine if I wore that?’ a rather hefty specimen asked his wife, who made it clear she preferred to see it on Woods.

The Augusta gallery know what they’re on about. Woods did indeed play for the front of the green, leaving himself the sort of chip he’d spent a considerable amount of time rehearsing in practice. Here’s where experience tells, knowing that with the chip you’re far better off 10ft short with an uphill putt for par rather than 5ft past.

After leaving himself the preferable effort, the roar was considerable as the best clutch-putter in the history of the game rolled it in for a four.

It’s fair to say there was quite a bit of trepidation among his audience at the start. What if he shoots 80? Or starts limping badly? Four pars to start settled everyone down. Then to the fifth, the least known but most difficult hole on the front nine.

Iron play and chipping and putting. That’s what Augusta is all about. Woods’ iron shot, as ever, was as pure as you like. Needing to land it in an area the size of a car tyre to get it close, he did just that and was walking the 12ft birdie putt in, like all the great moments of old, until he stopped abruptly as it horseshoed cruelly out.

A glorious tee shot on six set up a birdie putt a yard from the hole which Woods tapped in

A glorious tee shot on six set up a birdie putt a yard from the hole which Woods tapped in 

No matter. At the par-three sixth, another steepled iron was so good it looked for one moment as if it was about to finish in the hole, before drawing up 18 inches away. A couple of spectators behind the green started crying. ‘Two hours I’ve waited here and it was so worth it,’ said one. ‘Seriously, is there anyone watching anyone else?’ the other enquired.

EARLY SCORES 

-4 C Smith (Aus) 68

-3 D Willett (Eng) 69; J Niemann (Chi) 69; S Scheffler 69

-2 J Kokrak 70

-1 D Berger 71; H Higgs 71; K Na 71; T Woods 71; T Finau 71

PAR T Gooch 72; G Higgo (SA) 72; H Matsuyama 72

+1 M Hughes (Can) 73; Min-Woo Lee (A) 73; S Lowry (Ire) 73

+2 A Greaser 74; B Harman 74; P Harrington (Ire) 74; M Homa 74; Z Johnson 74; Kyoung-Hoon Lee (Kor) 74; JJ Spaun 74; S Straka (Aut) 74; M Weir (Can) 74

+3 F Couples 75; T Fleetwood (Eng) 75; K Kisner 75; G Migliozzi (It) 75; R Palmer 75.

+4 S Cink 76; S Woo Kim (Kor) 76; B DeChambeau 76; L Oosthuizen (SA) 76

+5 L List 77; L Mize 77; J Maria Olazabal (Sp) 77; H Swafford 77; C Young 77

+6 F Molinari (It) 78; V Singh (Fij) 78.

 

Tiger was one under par and on the vast leaderboard nearby, his name was inserted, together with figures that were surely as good as anyone could have dreamed for the first third of his round. The Augusta roars, like none other in golf, were sweet indeed.

You could feel it in the gallery. That birdie at the sixth was the moment when it all changed, when people went from just being glad to see the great man in the flesh to realising that he really wasn’t here just to smell the flowers.

The moment when doubters become believers once more. The miracle man was up to his tricks and it was something to behold.

By now, we were all so transfixed his first bogey — at the par-five eighth, of all holes — was a rude awakening. When his next drive finished in the trees, the tension in the gallery was palpable, before Woods calmed fraying nerves with a nerveless 10ft putt for par.

It was only on the greens where the scars from all his operations was noticeable. He didn’t even bother to get down on his haunches to read the lines. When you’ve played here as often as he has, is it really necessary anyway?

It didn’t look that way as he single-putted the two daunting par fours to begin the back nine as well. At the 11th, the enormous numbers who gather at this spectral meeting point for Amen Corner really were in rapture.

So to the 12th, the hole Tiger had played in 10 shots when last in these parts 18 months ago. This time he hit a smart shot away from the flag, showing the discipline and the humility of a five-time Masters champion. For any green jacket aspirant, it was turning into a clinic.

The masterclass continued with two mighty blows to the 13th, and a putt for an eagle that appeared to be tracking into the hole before coming up just short.

At the 14th, a poor drive was followed by a wonder blow that went unrewarded as he took three from the back of the green for a bogey.

A sensational birdie putt on the par-three 16th ensure that Woods headed into the final two holes one-under

A sensational birdie putt on the par-three 16th ensure that Woods headed into the final two holes one-under 

At the par-three 16th, there was yet another imperious iron shot. Has any golfer played so many? Perhaps only Ben Hogan, the other miracle man who came back from near-fatal car accident.

Tiger rapped home the 20ft putt and we had the first clenched-fist salute of this, the most improbable of all his comebacks.

What a privilege it was to witness.



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