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Grateful Woods is back - in contention

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AUGUSTA, Ga. – Tiger Woods tapped in for par at the 18th, plucked off his hat and saluted all the patrons giving him yet another standing ovation Thursday at the Masters.

He flashed his high-voltage smile, the one you expect after a memorable round.

Yes, he opened with a 73, but it might have been the most grateful he has ever been posting a round over par.

He wasn’t going to hide how much he loved being back here.

“I played a major championship again,” Woods said. “But, also, I got myself back in the tournament.”

Woods relished his return to one of the game’s great stages after missing the last eight major championships because of back injuries. He acknowledged how much he appreciated being back at Augusta National after missing the last two Masters, three of the last four.

If you want more evidence Woods is a different man, a “miracle” man grateful he can play pain-free golf after a back fusion, you got it here Thursday. He was visibly touched by the outpouring of support he got all the way around Augusta National.

Patrons were crammed at least five and six deep along the ropes at every hole.

“The crowds have been incredible,” Woods said. “It has been awesome this entire comeback.”

Woods got a standing ovation first thing in the morning when he stepped on the driving range. Patrons poured out of the clubhouse when he made his way toward the course. He got an ovation arriving at the practice putting green and again when he stepped onto the first tee.

As Woods noted, his smile at day’s end also came because of a much-needed late rally.

At round’s start, he looked like a guy who hasn’t made a cut in a major in three years. He scattered the gallery hooking his first tee shot into the woods. He hooked his tee shot through the trees at the ninth, and he scattered patrons knocking shots into the gallery at the 13th and 15th holes. Amidst all of that, he hit his tee shot at the 12th in the water.

Woods was asked if he was feeling more nervous than normal making this return.

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“The nerves really were just normal,” he said. “I wasn't flying high. I wasn't jittery. I wasn't any of that stuff. I was very confident in what I was doing.  And I hit some good shots early - unfortunately they just didn't continue.”

Woods needed to hole an 18-foot bogey putt at the 12th to keep from going 4 over par there.

“I could have easily let the round slip away from me, but I got it back,” Woods said. “I'm right back in this tournament.”

That’s the old Tiger, the voice of the guy who won four green jackets, the last a dozen years ago. That’s the guy so many lined up to see Thursday, wanting to see one of his epic runs.

This place would have ignited with an early run like that. This place felt like a powder keg waiting to go off, but there were more groans than cheers until late in the round.

While Woods was grateful for all the support, it might have cost him a shot at the 11th. After driving right in the tree line, he helped clear a path through the crowd. Unfortunately, he said, spectators raced back into the path too quickly after he hit his second shot.

“It was a great shot there,” Woods said. “Unfortunately, people ran out and it clipped them. Otherwise, it's just short right of the green, an easy up and down from there, where I was trying to leave it.”

Woods made bogey.

Woods rallied late, stuffing an 8-iron to 8 feet to make birdie at the 14th and then carving a 9-iron to 15 feet at the 16th to make another birdie.

Woods was just five shots off the lead when he walked off the course. If he had played the par 5s better, he would be even closer. He played them in even par, marking just the fifth time in 79 rounds at the Masters that he didn’t make birdie or better on a par 5.

“A 73 is fine,” Woods said. “By the end of the week, this will be a pretty packed leaderboard, the way the golf course is set up. They have it right where they want it.

“It's really hard to run away, but it's also really easy to lose it out there. By the end of the week, there will be a bunch of guys with a chance to win this tournament.”

If you were wondering, Woods said that was an ibuprofen he was taking at the turn. A reporter asked about it.

“My surgeon says to take it all day,” Woods said.

The rest of the field might need them if Woods gets these patrons going. A powder keg of emotions promises to blow if he gets himself in contention on the weekend.