On a picture-postcard day when journeymen and even a 50-year-old were part of the crowd going low, low and lower on every side of him, Woods was unusually calm. He closed this round of 2-under with a few uncharacteristic stumbles, but that didnt seem to fluster him, either.
He missed an 8-footer at No. 16, then a 4-footer at No. 17 for birdies. Next, he deposited an 8-iron from the fairway 50 feet over the 18th green and wound up making bogey. You half- expected to see steam blowing out of both ears when he exited the scoring hut.
If I had hit bad putts, it would be a totally different deal, but I hit good putts. It just means, he said evenly, I need to read them a little better.
Why so calm?
Over a golf course where he averages almost 73 on Thursday, it was his best opening round in a half-dozen years. So when someone pointed out that Woods had never broken 70 on the first day at Augusta National, he was rehearsed and ready. His smile widened from ear to ear.
Yeah, he said, fixing the questioner. I also won it four times.
Moments like that are a reminder that Woods had surgery to rebuild his knee, not his confidence.
Its a long week and the weather is going to start changing a little bit here and youve just got to keep patient, stay with it, he added. Its not like I havent been in this position before.
Woods says something like that almost every year, but this time theres a sense he knows more than hes letting on.
The swing he and coach Hank Haney have been fine-tuning for going on five years now looks better than ever, even better than when Woods finished off his latest sublime run by winning the U.S. Open on the 91st hole before going under the knife. The left foot that used to lift off the ground to take some of the stress off his knee now stays firmly rooted to the ground. Hes still susceptible to the occasional blocked drive, but hes also still the best scrambler on the planet.
His drive off No. 2 wound up in a gully, sitting on pine straw, 25 yards right of the fairway. With the TV cameras filling up the bushes behind him, Woods settled into his stance, hit a deft little pitch back to the middle of the fairway and left himself an approach shot of close to 230 yards off a downhill lie.
Anybody who still had questions about whether the knee was strong enough to brace against for a full shot didnt have to wait long for the answer. Woods threw the iron shot up into the sky and the ball stopped 10 feet past the flag like a Velcro strip was attached. Then he missed the putt. It went like that the whole day.
He made a birdie at No. 9 from 3 feet, then two more by tapping in at both of the par-5s on the back. The only birdie putt he made outside a few feet all day came at No. 14, where he sank a 20-footer.
Everyone was making birdies everywhere on that back nine, so I knew it could be had with good shots. Basically, he said, I was in a position to shoot 4-under-par and just didnt get it done.
There was plenty of the usual hissing, grousing, grimacing and flinging the occasional club back toward his bag with a bit too much English. Little seems to have changed since the last time we saw Woods at a major, except somehow he seems different.
Everyone speculated about how marriage, the loss of his father, the birth of his own kids and most recently, the surgery, would affect Woods. His response to every one of those life-changing events has been the same: He simply got better. On the admittedly scant evidence of 18 holes at his first major back, Woods might be better still. He knows it, even if hes reluctant to tip his hand early.
Someone asked a second time whether, with all the low scores, Woods was worried about his position. He repeated his stock answers.
Weve got a long way to go. The conditions are going to change, Youve just got to stay patient.
A moment later, another questioner asked how the knee held up.
Great, he replied. Thank you.
And the moment after that, he turned on that knee and started walking toward the clubhouse in the distance, the polite grin creasing his lips growing wider with every step.