At Masters, Tiger Woods Shows Flashes of Greatness and Signs of Struggle

AUGUSTA, Ga. — The sun emerged through a narrow gap in a cloud-filled sky as Tiger Woods approached the first tee Thursday at the Masters Tournament. He cast the area in a kind of glow. But the spotlight was not necessary.

Already it seemed that all eyes on the grounds of Augusta National Golf Club, as well as millions of people watching around the world, had turned to Woods, who was making an unlikely return to elite golf 408 days after a terrible accident. which potentially endangered his life. single vehicle car accident.

Approximately five hours later, Woods marched down the 18th fairway to loud applause, not only an acknowledgment of his successful return to competitive golf, but also an acknowledgment that he had done so at a more than commendable level.

In his first pro round in 17 months, Woods shot a gutsy, gutsy 1-under 71 with three birdies and two bogeys. He certainly looked rusty, and many of his usually reliable iron shots missed the easy-to-reach greens. He was erratic off the tee with his driver and played Augusta National par 3s at two under and par 5s at par, the reverse of his usual pattern.

But Woods’ putting, always his greatest strength, repeatedly saved him. He left the 18th hole with a smile much wider than the somewhat shy one he had flashed briefly on the first hole.

Afterward, Woods was appreciative and showed his usual competitive personality. He was already looking forward to moving up the rankings as the tournament progressed.

“I’m right where I need to be,” Woods, who was tied for 10th, said of his position (Sungjae Im led the field Thursday with 5-under 67). Of the thousands of fans who flocked to each hole he played, he said, “The place was electric. I am very lucky to have this opportunity to be able to play and have this kind of reception.”

While Woods seemed a bit out of practice at times, he seemed strong enough to handle the pressure of going up and down the many hills of Augusta National. However, there were signs that he was making concessions to his surgically reconstructed right leg and foot, which now have a rod, plates and screws holding them together. He rarely, for example, crouched behind his golf ball as he once did to read putts near playing surface level.

On the ninth hole, as Woods left the tee, he shuddered noticeably as his right leg seemed to land with difficulty. He winced at each of the following steps. While Woods picked up a steadier pace thereafter, he limped more and more as the day went on.

“Walking is not easy; it’s hard,” she said. “It’s going to be difficult for the rest of my life. That’s the way things are, but I’m capable of doing it.”

Not accepting partial victory, Woods admitted, however, that just being at Augusta National and completing 18 holes was victory enough. When asked why, he said: “If you had seen what my leg looked like where it is now, getting from there to here, it was not an easy task.”

Woods began his day with a confident march to the first tee, where he was greeted with enthusiastic applause. After touching his cap, he hit a drive down first fairway. But his approach shot, like many he hit Thursday, fell short. After a lackluster shot to the green, Woods faced the kind of putt no golfer appreciates on the first green: a slippery, brittle 12-foot shot. But he sank it par, and the gallery around the green let out a roar.

He wasn’t as precise on the par-5 second hole, which had normally been a place where Woods could almost count on a birdie, if not an eagle. But an inferior tee shot led to a save, an unexceptional chip and a pair of two putts. Three more pairs followed as Woods settled into a comfortable rhythm. Then, hitting off an elevated tee on the par-3 sixth hole, Woods deftly launched his tee shot into the air. A few long seconds later, he dropped onto the green and quickly stopped about 18 inches from the hole for an easy birdie.

Fans around the grounds of Augusta National, where the giant white markers are ubiquitous, saw Woods’ name appear near the top of the leaderboard at one under par. More roars.

Leaving the sixth green, Woods shrugged mischievously and covered his mouth to barely hide a smile. Perhaps competing for the lead at the Masters just an hour after his return to the tournament seemed a bit far-fetched, even to him.

But, starting on the seventh hole, recurring mistakes had Woods struggling to keep up with the leaders. For five holes, 7 through 11, he wasted quality tee shots when he missed the green with his approach shots.

Woods saved par with a nervous putt on the seventh green, but he didn’t come close to sinking an eight-foot putt on the par-5 eighth hole and came away with his first bogey of the round.

On the ninth hole, he pulled his shot into the trees to the left of the fairway before dropping another short approach, though he again saved par with a clutch putt. He did the same thing when his approach to the 11th green went wrong. He had an uneventful par two-putt on the tiny and treacherous 12th hole, then birdied the par-5 13th hole after hitting the green in two shots. That moved him to one under par for the round.

Another errant shot into the woods on the next hole brought out the Tiger of yesteryear as he viciously slammed the ball over some giant pine trees on his way to the green. His putter, however, couldn’t save him, and he got back up to par for the day with a bogey.

Another failed fairway led to a routine par on the par-5 15th hole, but Woods, as he has done so many times in the past, saved some drama for the par-3 16th hole when he sank a gnarly, uphill 23 putt. feet. for little bird That sequence also sparked Woods’ first animated move of the day.

A round in the 60s wasn’t out of the question, but Woods managed just a routine par on the 17th hole. On the closing hole, another crooked path momentarily derailed him. But the round ended with a flourish when he recovered to sink an 8-foot putt and secure a sub-par round.

Coming off the final hole, Woods, a five-time Masters champion, seemed almost to be giving the rest of the field a warning.

“We have a long way to go,” he said of the tournament. “This golf course is going to change drastically: cooler, drier, windier. It’s going to get a lot harder.”

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