Tiger Woods is More Dogged than Dazzling in his Return to the Masters
The Masters patrons who flocked to watch Tiger Woods’s first round of a major tournament in 963 days did not see the dominant Woods, the surgeon who once carved up par 5s as if they were Easter hams.
In his previous 78 trips around Augusta National, Woods had played the course’s four longest holes in 150 strokes under par. On Thursday, he covered those par 5s in even par. It was only the fifth time in 21 Masters starts that Woods had failed to birdie at least one of those holes.
Woods’s round, his first at the Masters since 2015, was a clinic in grit. It took his followers on a roller-coaster ride that ended in a one-over 73 and treated them to Woods at his most dogged.
Woods refused to let himself unravel. Not on the first hole, where he salvaged par after pulling his drive into the trees and hitting his approach short of the green. And not on the holes of Amen Corner, where his wayward shots splashed in water, caromed off a patron and parted the gallery.
At the par-4 11th, where the fabled corner starts, Woods’s drive sailed right; his low second shot smacked a member of the gallery and landed in the rough; his chip stopped 20 feet from the hole; and his par putt missed.
At the par-3 12th, Woods’s tee shot landed in Rae’s Creek. After he pitched to 18 feet, Woods made the bogey putt. After another errant drive on the par-5 13th, Woods hit another low shot that scattered the patrons, he pitched to 16 feet and narrowly missed a birdie attempt.
At that point, Woods was three over par and seven strokes behind the early pacesetter, Marc Leishman, who was part of his group. (Tommy Fleetwood rounded out the threesome). But Woods, digging deep, then birdied two of his final five holes.
That was more than the defending champion Sergio García could say after a meltdown on the par-5 15th cost him any realistic chance of surviving the cut. It was the same hole where he carded an eagle 3 in his final round last year, but this time García posted a 13, with five water balls, on his way to an 81.
Woods has played the 15th hole 79 times since his first Masters appearance in 1995, and his worst score was a triple bogey 8. He has a knack for wielding his wedges and putter like tourniquets when he needs to stop the bleeding.
“I don’t like dropping shots because then I have to get it back,” Woods said.
Woods’s return to the Masters after a two-year absence due to multiple spinal operations was well received by the fans, who gave him a standing ovation when he appeared on the range for his warm-up session.
“The crowds have been incredible,” Woods said, adding, “They’re really into it.”
It was easy to get swept up in the hype that heralded Woods’s first appearance in a major since he missed the cut at the 2015 P.G.A. Championship. At his pre tournament news conference this week, Woods was asked if it would qualify as “the greatest sporting comeback of all time” if, at the tournament’s end, he was wearing his fifth Masters jacket.
“Let’s just kind of slow down,” said Woods, providing the necessary dose of perspective. If he were to win this tournament, he said, it wouldn’t even qualify as the greatest comeback of all time in golf.
Woods mentioned Ben Hogan, who in 1949 was driving a car that collided head-on with a Greyhound bus. Hogan’s left leg was mangled. He sustained fractures in his left collarbone, left ankle, pelvis and a rib. He developed blood clots. After being sidelined for a little more than a year, Hogan returned at age 37 and won the last six of his nine majors, including two Masters.
“I mean, he got hit by a bus and came back and won major championships,” Woods said, insisting that Hogan’s comeback qualified as the greatest in sports because of “the pain he had to endure, the things he had to do just to play, the wrapping of the leg, all the hot tubs, and just how hard it was for him to walk, period.”
Jack Burke Jr., the 1956 Masters champion, was competing when Hogan returned. Now 95, Burke watched the telecast of Thursday’s round from the Champions Golf Club in Houston, which he helped start.