AUGUSTA, Ga. — The scene was unlike any that has ever taken place at Augusta National.
Tiger Woods’ opening-round Masters tee time was still some 15 minutes away and there was the customary large gathering underneath the famous oak tree adjacent to the clubhouse.
Among the large cluster of humanity milling about under those large hanging limbs that provide a huge canopy of shade on sunny Georgia days included Augusta National members wearing their green jackets — among them NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
Peyton Manning, another of the club’s high-profile members, wasn’t far away. Nor was six-time Masters winner Jack Nicklaus and his wife, Barbara.
As the clock moved closer to Woods’ 11:04 a.m. tee time, unconsciously and without and the prompting of choreography, the scattered group of people in various stages of conversation began to form a long human tunnel from the clubhouse to the first tee.
Tiger Woods tees off on the seventh hole.EPA
At 10:56 a.m., the conversation stopped and there was a hush of anticipation under that tree.
A minute later entered Woods, following his caddie Joe LaCava. He emerged in his bright pink golf shirt to applause and when he got to the start of that impromptu human tunnel, he looked like an NFL player about to take the field for a big game.
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Woods stopped for a moment, his eyes closing for several seconds, took a deep breath and proceeded to power past the people, expressionless, en route to the first tee.
Tiger Woods celebrates his 16th-hole birdie during the first round of the Masters on Thursday.REUTERS
And there it was: Less than 14 months removed from the car crash that nearly took his leg, Woods was playing tournament golf again. Not just tournament golf, but a Masters, where he would walk one of the hilliest, undulating golf courses anywhere, in pursuit of a record-tying sixth green jacket.
When his day was done, at 4:25 in the afternoon after a five-hour, 21-minute round, Woods stood at 1-under par after shooting 71 and was three shots behind Australian Cam Smith, who was leading at 4-under at the time, in a tie for ninth.
All things considered — still with his right leg that was so mangled doctors thought they may need to amputate and having not played in a tournament in 17 months (the November 2020 Masters) — it was hardly a poor day at all for him.
Tiger Woods (r.) shakes hands with Joaquin Niemann after shooting 1-under during the first round of the Masters on Thursday.REUTERS
If you told Woods over breakfast Thursday morning that he would shoot a 71, he surely would have signed up for that.
Woods’ day began with a nifty par save on the first hole, where his tee shot was short of the bunker on the right side of the fairway and his approach shot landed short of the green.
Woods failed to birdie the gettable par-5 second hole, where a par feels like a bogey.
A large crowd looks on as Tiger Woods hits off the 18th tee during the first round of the Masters on Thursday.Getty Images
His first birdie of the day came on the par-3 sixth hole, getting him to 1-under par and one shot off the lead at the time. It was a truly unfathomable sight: Woods’ name on a Masters leaderboard so soon after that grisly crash.
Woods bogeyed the par-5 eighth hole, another birdie hole, with a sloppy third shot, to fall back to even par.
He got back to 1-under with a birdie on the par-5 13th hole, where he reached the green in two and two-putted.
Woods quickly gave it back, though, with a bogey on 14, where he missed a four-foot par putt after he appeared to have averted a big number with a brilliant approach shot from the left pine straw and trees to just off the back of the green.
Tiger Woods hits his tee shot on the seventh hole during the first round of the Masters on Thursday.EPA
So, he walked to the tee on 15, the final par-5 on the card, at even par.
Woods got himself into trouble again, on 15, when his second shot landed left of the fairway on wet, bare lie, forcing him to flight a drawing approach onto the green.
He would two-putt to save par, but one birdie on the four par-5s is not a winning formula. One of the tenets to winning a Masters is taking care of the par-5s, something Woods knows as well as anyone because he’s made a living doing that in his successful years.
Tiger Woods hits off the eighth fairway during the first round of the Masters on Thursday.AP
Woods showed his most emotion of the round on the par-3 16th, where he drained a long birdie putt and pumped his right fist as he got back to 1-under for the round walking to the 17th tee.
That elation looked like it would be short-lived as Woods yanked his tee shot on 18 into the left trees, but he got a big break as his ball bounced out of the trees and into an opening. He then got relief from a patchy spot because of casual water and hit his second shot short of the green.
From there, he pitched his third shot to within six feet of the flag and made the par-save putt.
Woods hit 8 of 14 fairways and 8 of 18 greens and took 27 putts in the round.
Smith double bogeyed the first hole and went on a heater from there … until he got to the 18th hole, which he double bogeyed. He’d played 8-under par from the second hole through 17 before the hiccup on the closing hole.
Woods’ playing partners Joaquin Niemann shot a 3-under-par 69 and Louis Oosthuizen shot a 4-over-par 76.