AUGUSTA, Ga. – Tiger Woods looked good, really good, in the opening round of the Masters Tournament.
That could be reason to celebrate for Woods’ friends and fans. It also could be reason for concern.
What if … Woods played the way he used to play when he dominated golf? What if … he looked good, really good again in the majors and it wasn’t good enough?
Stupid questions? Not yet. Woods had an excellent day, shooting 2-under 70 on Thursday at Augusta National Golf Club. Sure, he missed a couple of putts inside 6 feet that would’ve edged him nicely into the 60s and closer to co-leaders Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau, who shot 66s (scores). Woods seemed to be a lock to be the day’s top story. As the sun began to set behind the pines, though, five scores of 68 or better were posted, and it felt a lot more like the sun setting on Tiger Woods.
© GOLFFILE/FRAN CAFFREY
Tiger Woods draws his usual massive crowd as he takes another customary position at the Masters: in contention.
The Play of the Day figured to be Woods at the 14th hole. He carved a shot out of the trees at the par 4, then dropped a hooking, accelerating 25-foot birdie putt that caused a Tiger roar – unlike a roar for any other player – that shook the trees. That putt got him to 3 under and a share of the lead.
Just like that, his chase toward Jack Nicklaus and his 18 major championships was back in play. Woods has been on hold at 14 since his last major title 11 years ago, at the 2008 U.S. Open.
That putt at 14 was courtesy of Haotong Li, who putted from a similar line before Woods. “That was a nice little teach,” Woods said.
Instead, the Play of the Day was something else – probably DeChambeau’s approach shot that hit the stick at the 18th hole, bouncing back for a tap-in birdie.
Well, Woods bogeyed the 17th, where the cup was perched on a tricky spot, and finished at 70. It was all coming together, wasn’t it? That’s what it felt like.
“We all know he’s back,” said Koepka, a three-time major champion who is seeking his first green jacket. “There’s no doubt about that.”
Woods, 43, looked better at the recent WGC Dell Match Play, where he dusted Rory McIlroy but then lost in the quarterfinals, than at any time since he finished second to Koepka in the PGA Championship in August.
Scores weren’t low in the opening round Thursday. A 70 looked pretty smart at the time. Plus, there was a little historical fist-pump at work for Woods. Three of the four times when he won the Masters, he opened with rounds of 70. That could be trivial, but not when Woods brings it up on TV before ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi can even ask it in a post-round interview. It’s the kind of thing that Woods wouldn’t bring up without prompting unless he felt good about his game, unless he was sure that he could back it up.
It practically became his post-round mantra.
“I’ve shot this number and won four coats, so hopefully I can do it again,” said Woods, who unwittingly got the stat wrong. Later, he repeated, “I’ve only shot under 70 one time here, but I’ve shot 70 the four times that I have won here.”
Three out of four. He opened with 70 in his first three Masters victories. In 2005, he posted an opening 74 before winning.
But let’s not quibble. Woods seemed to be on a roll. He was tied for fifth shortly after he finished. Late in the day, a wave of players rolled over him. Behind DeChambeau and Koepka, Phil Mickelson shot 67. Suddenly, that 70 didn’t seem quite as smart.
It still might prove to be significant that Woods has an air of confidence that he hasn’t enjoyed in a while. He’s smiling and apparently chewing gum during his round. He’s loose and yet focused at the same time.
There were rumblings in the gallery on the opening nine when Woods let a few strokes slip away. He hit it close at the par-3 sixth hole, but then he hit what he called his poorest stroke of the day. Woods stuffed it close again at the par-4 ninth and converted that birdie.
So, let’s assess what it all means. Woods has an afternoon tee time today, when there is a chance for a thundershower (tee times). Is that an advantage or a disadvantage? You never know at Augusta National.
Simply put, he’s driving it decently (as he did in Austin at the Match Play); putting like the Woods of old most of the time (as he did in Austin); and his irons and short game were strong. What’s not to like?
It wasn’t a perfect round. He hit 11 greens, not a big number on a course with such super-sized putting surfaces. But he managed the course well. And he does tend to play on the cautious side in the opening rounds at majors.
“I feel like my body’s good and my game’s good; it’s sharp,” Woods said. “The whole idea is to try to peak four times a year. So just go out there and execute, and if I do miss, miss in the proper spot.”
Woods said he’s sharp. He doesn’t normally say that unless he really is sharp. And when he’s sharp, well…
The opening 70 felt familiar. So did the confidence. The skill level of his opponents? Perhaps not.
Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle