AUGUSTA, Ga. – Fresh out of a rehabilitation center and the scandal sheets and playing his first competition in five months, Tiger Woods finally broke 70 on Masters opening day, made two eagles in a round here for the first time and drew receptions that ranged from thunderous to warm. In terms of performance and decibels, his path to a 68 looked like business as usual.
Not a discouraging word was heard. The only playful jabs seemed to come from the sky.
As Woods played the first hole at Augusta National, an airplane circling overhead carried a trailing banner that read, “Tiger – Did you mean Bootyism?” The reference was to Woods’ recurring pledge to reunite with Buddhism after the revelation of multiple affairs. And as he played the seventh hole, a plane trailer read, “Sex addict? Yeah, sure. Me too!” Woods said he saw neither message.
To one man’s ears, the applause for Woods ranged from 90 to 50 percent of the typical past. His walks off the first tee and to the ninth green were met by roars of yesteryear, as if he had just gotten out of church rather than out of sex scandal. Some other audible response was tepid.
The main difference from then and now was Woods’ countenance. He was friendlier to and more interactive with galleries. He appeared to carry through the pledge of being more respectful to the game. He smiled more than usual. His reactions to shots weren’t as high and low as before.
The four-time Masters champion acknowledged what sounded like a hero’s welcome on the first tee with a tip of the cap, a wave and a big smile. When his threesome walked off the tee after driving, you’d have thought Woods was playing by himself, with Matt Kuchar and K.J. Choi in effect invisible. All the love poured Woods’ way. As yells of “Go Tiger!” cascaded, he smiled knowingly to himself, his lips together, his heart clearly touched.
I’m not saying he was greeted like he was the Dali Lama in a robe. But he hardly was treated as someone who turned his family and part of golf upside down. You couldn’t hear a negative even if you strained an ear drum.
“It helps when you have the crowd behind you like that,” Woods said. “The reception was incredible all day.”
The massive ring around the entire first hole resembled something out of a Woods final pairing here on a Sunday. But in a way what was happening here was more significant.
Curiosity about Woods was probably at an all-time high.
Even the security guards were curious. A longtime PGA Tour member in the gallery at No. 1 said he witnessed a security guard holding a sheet of head shots of numerous women reported to be Woods mistresses. Several other security men gathered around to look at the sheet, he said, presumably because they were on the lookout for any in the gallery. It was similar to a scene earlier in the week, when a television producer witnessed a security guard on No. 5 pull out the same kind of sheet and question a woman in the crowd.
Woods himself appeared very relaxed. Certainly he was far less insular. On the third hole, I witnessed a rarity. When a patron against the ropes, 20 yards from Woods, yelled, “Welcome back, Tiger,” the world No. 1 looked up and said, “Thank you.”
In the past, we knew he had a 1,000-yard stare. We weren’t sure he had ears. He did Thursday.
“I was saying ‘thank you’ all day,” he said.
Woods, of course, made his re-entry to golf in conditions that were gusty but still agreeable to low scoring because of moved-up tees and some easy pin positions. On a day when marquee names shot to the top of the leaderboard. On a day that made one wonder if officials shouldn’t senior-proof Augusta National. Fred Couples, 50, leads at 66, his lowest round ever here. Tom Watson, 60, is a shot back, tied with the Q-rated likes of Phil Mickelson, Lee Westwood, YE. Yang and K.J. Choi.
Woods made the eagles from 10 feet at the eighth and 9 feet at the 15th. He birdied No. 3 from 5 feet, No. 9 from 7 feet and No. 13 on a tap-in.
“It felt like normal,” he said. “I felt like I did after every other start.”
Though he broke 70 for the first time ever at Augusta, his 68 could’ve been better. He lipped out from 12 feet for eagle at 13 and lipped out birdie putts of 9 feet at 12 and 6 feet at 18. His three bogeys came after he missed greens at Nos. 7, 10 and 14.
“I hit the ball well all day,” he said. “Unfortunately I didn’t putt very well. Otherwise it could’ve been a special round.”
Woods said he was surprised “a little bit” by his opening 68, adding, “A couple of under would be a good start, but everybody seemed to go low,” he said. “The golf course, even though it was windy, could be had today.”
Woods’ only burst of disgust came at 14 when he pulled his approach left of the green, dropped his club in frustration and yelled something about God. Even that’s kinder and gentler. We’re heard much worse.
And we’ve seen him play worse, particularly on Masters opening day. He did hit a couple of errant drives, missing both left and right. But when you have three eagle putts inside of 12 feet after 144 days of inactivity, no one needs to make an urgent call for a rust-removal service.