"Well, Sandy, are you ready to play a little golf?" And that's it, the honorary shot ballyhoo with Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus was over and the 77th Masters was under way.
Sandy Lyle nodded his head and, easy as you like, hit his first shot short, straight and simple into the thick mist hanging over the fairway. He has been doing this awhile, has Sandy. Unlike his partners, the amateur Nathan Smith and a 23-year-old rookie called John Peterson, who made a name for himself when he finished tied for fourth at the US Open last year. You could tell that neither of them had slept a wink.
Peterson looked as if he had been up all night on a whisky jag, with big black bags under his eyes. He twitched nervously, snapped at the ball and sliced it wide to the right. By the time it plopped down in a bunker all the blood had drained from his face to his feet. His lips had turned grey and were stretched tight across his chops. For a minute it looked like he was going to vomit on his caddie's shoes.
It is intimidating, that 1st tee. Peterson made it out of the bunker and got up-and-down to make par. First lesson of Augusta, kid: it's not about the mistakes you make, but how well you recover from them. Bobby Jones and Alister MacKenzie designed it that way back in the early 1930s, believing it would be a more entertaining course for it. They used to say that Houdini never wowed anyone by getting into trouble, only by getting out of it.
Tiger Woods knows that as well as anyone. Over the first five holes of his first round, Woods played, by his own standards, some scrappy stuff, especially off the tee, where he seemed always to be fighting to keep himself from pulling the ball around to the left. Twice, on the 2nd and 3rd holes, Woods clipped the ball into the crowd. He should be thankful that he had so many thousands of fans. If they had been spread a little thinner he might have been playing his next shots from the pine needles. As it was, the ball ricocheted back into the rough both times, once off somebody's leg and once off somebody else's bag. At least he did not clatter the Nike executive Phil Knight or the former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, two of the more illustrious members of the army following him around.
The wayward shot on the 2nd in particular was a real horror, so flat and low it barely cleared head height. The roars of appreciation that accompany every shot Woods makes at Augusta turned into cries of panic as the gallery, packed six deep, realised where the ball was heading and skittled each other over in their rush to get out of the way.
Woods, it has to be said, did not seem to offer much of an apology. Perhaps he was too busy thinking about his next shot. On both occasions, he still managed to make par. On the 2nd he did it with a delightful chip from the back of the green, which rolled back towards the hole to leave him an easy putt, and on the 3rd he did it with a fine approach. So those first five holes were about the gravel in his gut.
On the hill where the green of the 5th abuts the tee of the 6th, the crowd are as thick as flies. Some thicker. But there was one sage who was heard to say, between puffs on a fat cigar: "Tiger hadn't had it yet, but he's still even. That's a good sign. I reckon if he's still even after 6 he'll finish the day three under." He was still standing their smiling, moments later, when Woods hit a wonderful shot to within four feet of the steep, downhill 6th, which they call Juniper. "Oh," the sage said. "He'll drain that like gravy." And so he did, for his first birdie of the tournament.
Woods's playing partner Luke Donald had beaten him to it, but made a bogey at that same hole, wiping out the advantage he had earned with a birdie on the 5th. For Woods, bad followed good. His very next shot was another hooked drive which put him back into the rough, but again he recovered to make par. On the long, uphill 8th, Yellow Jasmine, Woods and Donald both made birdies, each in their own style. Donald did it with a pinpoint approach, which meant he went through the turn in even par. Woods did it with a deft chip from the fringe, which meant he got there on two under.
It could have been better still. Twice, like Sylvester, he was sniffing birdies. He had a couple of putts to make from around 12 feet, and twice, just like Tweetie Pie, the birdies escaped him. The frustration of it was getting to him. He began to swing his putter around in irritation, perhaps even disgust at himself. He made it around Amen Corner easily enough, picking up his third birdie at the par-five 13th. That put him high up the leaderboard and the prospect of a seriously good score began to loom ominously over the rest of the field. But, again, bad followed good. Another bogey at the 14th, and he was back to two under, which is exactly where he finished up, lurking a little way back in the pack. And Peterson? Well, he finished up one under for the round, just a single stroke off Woods. He learned quick.
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image: © Keith Allison