AUGUSTA, Ga. – Tiger Woods turned back the clock, too.
Instead of dialing it back three decades like Tom Watson or two decades like Fred Couples, Woods needed only dial it back five months.
For moment piled upon moment Thursday at Augusta National, Woods must have thought the 133 days that have passed since he crashed into his neighbor’s yard were just a bad dream.
That’s how good the first round of the Masters was for Woods.
It was surreal, as if somebody erased the archive of ugly tabloid stories about Woods’ series of marital affairs. A day that seemed destined to be dreaded couldn’t have gone more smoothly for Woods as he climbed onto the leaderboard with a 4-under-par 68.
It was as if somebody also hit the rewind button on Woods’ game.
Woods wasn’t as good as he’s ever been at Augusta National. The four-time Masters' winner was better than he’s ever been. At least in the first round.
Woods’ 68 was his best opening round in 16 Masters’ appearances. In fact, it was two shots better than any opening round he’s posted here. He made a pair of eagles Thursday and almost made a third. He eagled the eighth with a terrific slinging hook to 8 feet. He eagled the 15th lofting a short iron to 8 feet yet again. He missed a 12-foot putt for eagle at the 13th.
“I felt normal,” Woods said of his return.
If not for an airplane taunting Woods with banners from above, you would have been hard pressed to find evidence that anyone on these grounds resented his return to the game. Patrons welcomed Woods back with unabashed enthusiasm. The reception after his long disappearance in the wake of a torrid run of ugly stories about his series of marital affairs was just short of stunning.
“The reception was incredible,” Woods said.
Not from above, though, where Woods teed off with a plane passing with a banner that read: “Tiger, did you mean bootyism?” Woods said he never saw the pointed shot at his pledge to return to Buddhism. He said he also didn’t see the plane late carrying a banner that read: 'Sex Addict? Yeah, sure, me too!'
Matt Kuchar, playing with Woods, seemed surprised how easy the day went.
“The interaction was as if nothing changed,” Kuchar said.
But we were reminded that everything’s changed.
After Woods hit his tee shot at the 14th, he was showered with affection making his way up the fairway. He waved three times to fans on his left, twice to those on his right. He tipped his cap twice, and he smiled. There was your powerful reminder that Woods hasn’t forgotten his sins. He’s playing nice with fans like we’ve never seen before.
“I was saying thank you all day,” Woods said.
Woods is different. A reasonable person can’t help wondering if he’s perpetrating another masterful deception to rehabilitate his brand. He did, after all, fool a lot of people for such a long time. His newest Nike ad, it should be noted, just hit television Wednesday. But there’s the possibility that he’s undergoing a metamorphosis as a better man. It’s clear folks here want to encourage that, or maybe all they care about is his golf. Likely, it’s both.
Differences could be seen in Woods’ demeanor. He didn’t throw a fist pump after either eagle. He swiped the air with a bad shot at the 14th, but there were no foul-mouthed outbursts.
“It was neat to have a front-row seat for Tiger’s welcome back,” said Matt Kuchar, who played with Woods. “It was exciting. Everyone was wishing him well.”
As for worries that the players paired with Woods would struggle in all the intense interest in Woods, consider that Kuchar shot 70 and Choi outplayed Woods, shooting 67.