It was a chilly morning in Augusta, or what passes for it in these parts. The kind of day when you can spot the tourists because they are the only people wearing shorts. Tiger Woods played like he felt it. He was stiff and creaky in his first competitive round here since 2015. By the time he made the turn, the sun was out and weather hot, but he still had not warmed up. Anything but. His game froze up around Amen Corner, where he hit more patrons than he made pars. At least it meant the people in the front row got to see a lot of him.
There was a hint of what was to come in Woods’s opening tee-shot, when he pulled his three wood left into the gallery and had to play out of the pine needles. Just like he did in his very first professional round here, back in 1997. That year he covered the front nine in a four‑over 40. This time he scrambled round in 37, one over. There was a single birdie, when he raked a fine, flat tee-shot right up to the foot of the 3rd green. The roar for that carried right around Augusta. But it was the only one he got all morning.
Woods dropped a shot at the very next hole. It was a still day, barely enough breeze to scatter the cigar smoke, but he caught one of the odd little gusts that did flare up, and his ball flopped in the front bunker. He blasted out too hard, well past, and missed the putt coming back. He just didn’t quite have his touch. He was in the bunker again at the 5th after a poor tee‑shot. And then the American took three putts to finish. Which meant back-to-back bogeys, so he was one over.
Woods should have pulled a shot back at the 6th, but he missed his birdie putt from seven feet. His partner, Marc Leishman, was three-under after the 7th. Leishman, 34, is the kind of straightforward guy who doesn’t much mind who he is playing with or how many people are watching. He just keeps grinding away. By the time he had made it around Amen Corner he was four under, and leading the tournament, though a double bogey on 15 knocked him down again.
By then Woods was going backwards, too. And sideways, left, right, and every which way. His tee-shot on 11 flew far right, and his second squirted ankle-high into the crowd. Then on 12, he fetched up in Rae’s Creek, took a drop and made a fine putt from the fringe. So that was another brace of back-to-back bogeys. On 13 he was back in the trees, and then in the crowd again. He escaped with a brilliant pitch, but missed his birdie putt. It was sloppy stuff. “Up and down” was how he put it.
After 20 years of playing here, Woods knows the course as well as anyone. You would not have guessed it watching him on the 15th, where he sliced his first shot so far right that he ended up playing off the 17th, and pulled his second so far left that he was almost back on the 13th again. Call it the scenic route. He got down in five, which meant he played all four of the par‑fives in level par. He said himself that they were the difference to his round. “If I’d just played the par‑fives better, I’d be right up there.”
Either side of that zig-zag at the 15th, though, Woods made birdies at both the 14th, where he hit his approach to six feet, and the 16th, where he made a fine 22ft putt. So after all that, he was only one over. He did a lot of dirty work on the way, hard-scrabble, scrambling golf, rather than the magical stuff everyone had been hoping to see. But then his fairytale days are well behind him. Whatever else he does this week, none of it is going to come easy.