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At an unusual Masters, a bit of normalcy: Tiger Woods is in contention

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AUGUSTA, Ga. – For countless reasons beyond golf it wasn’t the return he’d hoped for, but it was a hopeful return to Augusta National for Tiger Woods.

After beginning the week as an unusual afterthought, given that he’s the defending champion at this Masters after claiming his fifth green jacket and his 15th major championship and moving to within a single triumph of surpassing Sam Snead on the all-time victory list ... well, you get the idea. This Masters should have been all Tiger all the time, but it wasn’t.

The media, be it social or otherwise, talked of Bryson DeChambeau doing Bryson DeChambeau things and the first November Masters and Augusta National without patrons.

It’s been a strange year and as such a strange Masters is only status quo, but at an eerily quiet Augusta National Tiger made things feel normal, if only for a moment.

Thursday’s opening round was delayed nearly three hours by early storms and when Tiger did get his round started the traditional cheers had been replaced by the incessant hum of the club’s SubAir machines as technology squeezed the layout into something close to April shape.

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Tiger normally keeps the competitive blinders locked firmly in place during these Grand Slam get-togethers, but following his workday he acknowledged the odd elephant in the room.

“There were a lot of differences today, playing on [Nos.] 1 and 10 today,” Woods said of the split-tee start. “There was a drone flying over the putting green. Down 1 today you could hear the drone over there. You don't hear drones here. There's no patrons, no roars.”

But as the “no’s” piled up on Day 1, Tiger provided a much-needed measure of familiarity. In 22 starts at the Masters, he’s managed just a single first round in the 60s, a 4-under 68 in 2010 that was otherworldly for an entirely different set of reasons. On Thursday he matched that with an impressively consistent bogey-free effort – his first in a major since the 2009 PGA Championship.

In normal times, Tiger tied for fifth place at the Masters probably wouldn’t be worth a hashtag, but these aren’t normal times. The defending champion admitted as much earlier this week when asked about his record this year. After missing much of the spring with an assortment of injuries, he played just six times following the PGA Tour’s restart in June without so much as a cup of coffee in contention.

In his last start before this week’s tournament, he finished 72nd out of 77 players at the Zozo Championship and said he needed to work on nearly every aspect of his game if he was going to defend his title at Augusta National.

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With a 68 Thursday at the Masters, Tiger Woods made it clear that he has no plans to relinquish the green jacket anytime soon.

If there was a sliver of hope, it was that Tiger said that physically he was fine. Better than fine, in fact, when compared to how he felt before the 2019 Masters.

“My body is feeling better than I did last year, so it was a little bit easier to hit those shots,” he said on Tuesday.

Tiger seemed to have the entire arsenal on Thursday. He hit 15 of 18 greens in regulation, 10 of 14 fairways and came in with a 281.5-yard driving average, which is perfectly respectable for a 44-year-old with a surgically repaired back.

“I did everything well. I drove it well, hit my irons well, putted well,” Woods said. “The only thing I could say is that I wish I could have made a couple more putts.”

In Los Angeles he said there was a kernel of hope in his putting and putting, despite the buzz created by DeChambeau’s quest for longer and longer drives, rules at Augusta National.

Tiger was tied for first on putts from 5-10 feet, converting 16-for-16 attempts. He made birdie attempts from 20 feet on No. 1, 10 feet at No. 15, 2 feet at No. 16 after a brilliant tee shot and he two-putted from 46 feet at No. 13.

Tiger on bogey-free 68: 'Did everything well today'

Tiger on bogey-free 68: 'Did everything well today'

It was textbook Tiger at a place where he’s written the book. Nothing flashy, just a markedly stress-free day, which after the year he’s had was something of a surprise.

This was not supposed to be Tiger’s tournament to win. DeChambeau was the favorite, world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm all seemed to be trending in the right direction and yet there Woods was at 4 under after 18 holes for just the second time in his career at Augusta National.

Despite his poor form, Tiger’s institutional knowledge of Augusta National proved just as relevant as it was last year. After 22 Masters, he knows where to miss drives and where to make putts and, for at least one more day, he was able to execute that game plan.

“I think that understanding how to play this golf course is so important,” he said. “I've been lucky enough to have so many practice rounds throughout my career with so many past champions, and I was able to win this event early in my career and build myself up for the understanding.”

Thursday at Augusta National was so different for so many reasons, but Tiger, the Masters fixture for over two decades, found a way to make the surreal seem strangely standard.