AUGUSTA, Ga. – Tiger Woods’ game either has been poked and prodded or hailed and lauded following every round of his professional life.
Perhaps for the first time ever, we should do none of the above regarding his opening 73 Thursday at the Masters. Sit back and appreciate the fact that an aging champion returned to his favorite playground and gave it a go.
Two months ago, when last we saw Woods, he was an absolute mess. He couldn’t hit a green with a pitching wedge from the middle of the fairway. The most elementary of chip shots provided hold-your-breath moments. He went out of his way to hit bump and runs from around the green instead of attempting flop shots for fear of hitting nasty skulls. And we will never forget the worst moment, when Woods withdrew after 11 holes at Torrey Pines because his glutes failed to activate.
Since Woods announced he was going to play the Masters last Friday, the golf world has gone haywire with prognostications. It was ratcheted up Monday when he played 11 holes in a practice round and was several shots under par. Some of that subsided Tuesday when he hit a few more wayward shots. Woods went for a back-nine stroll with Jordan Spieth and Ben Crenshaw on Wednesday and Gentle Ben gushed about how well Woods played.
Still, those practice-round performances coupled with a newfound happy-go-lucky attitude has seemingly made Woods the de facto Mayor of Augusta this week. The betting public was so smitten with Woods that his odds of winning dropped from 40-to-1 to 25-to-1 overnight.
Now that the first round is in the books, there’s no real hope that Woods is going to contend, especially with the New Kid on the Block doing his thing in just 64 shots at the top of the leaderboard. That Woods returned at the Masters, after missing last year because of injury, was the story.
“I felt good,” Woods said. “I felt like I hit the ball well enough to shoot 3 under par.”
That’s certainly one way of looking at it. Woods also played poorly enough to shoot 3 or 4 over par.
First, the positives.
Woods’ short game, of all things, bailed him out again and again. He short sided himself on the monstrous par-4 10th hole and got up and down from a bunker when he converted a 5 footer for par. On the next hole, he blew his approach well right of the green and got up and down again for par.
On the historic par-3 12th hole, Woods hit a terrible tee shot short and the ball rolled back into the water. After a drop he pitched the ball to kick-in range and made bogey. Next he hit his second shot left of the par-5 13th hole and got up and down for birdie by making a putt from 8 feet.
“It’s my strength again,” Woods said matter-of-factly about his short game, almost as if he doesn’t realize how poorly he played mere months ago.
“That’s why I’ve busted my butt. That’s why I took time off. That’s why I hit thousands and thousands of shots to make sure that it’s back to being my strength.”
Many of the mistakes can be chalked up to competitive rust. It’s also abundantly clear that Woods focused so much on cleaning up his horrid short game that he failed to pay more attention to some of the other aspect of his game. There was a sloppy three-putt on the first hole, a poor bunker shot on the fourth, two terrible swings on the ninth hole where Woods was lucky to escape with bogey.
Simply, though, it was a bizarre day at the office.
Is all of this progress? Considering where he was, absolutely it is. But this is still Tiger Woods and it’s exceedingly difficult to swallow that a 73 at Augusta National is an acceptable result. He’s hovering around the cut line for goodness sake. There used to be times when Woods could overpower these hallowed grounds, but we knew down deep, as much as we wish it weren’t true, that he was going to struggle to break par.
“I’m glad he’s back,” said playing partner Jimmy Walker. “He had some good pars where he got up and down. It was good to see him playing good.”
That seemed to be the theme of the day for everyone but Woods.
He grinded all day, blamed slow green speeds for the reason he didn’t putt better and threw out various expletives along the way. Those were all shades of the old Woods. Nothing, though, was more vintage Woods than a never-say-die comment in a post-round interview.
“You know, I’m still in it. I’m only nine back,” he said as he sits in a 41st-place tie. “And we have a long way to go.”
He’s come a long way already.