By the time Tiger Woods reached the 18th green, the sun was low in the sky and the cool evening wind was up.
A few thousand fans were gathered around to watch him sink a two-foot putt for a final par. It was a calm end to a chaotic day.
In his first competitive round since he dropped out of the Waste Management Open in Phoenix two months ago, Woods shot 73, one over par. A fair score, as he said himself, but one left – like so many others – looking a little underwhelming when set next to the spectacular feats of Jordan Spieth. “It was a good day, I felt good out there,” Woods said. “I made two dumb mistakes, but other than that the only thing I struggled with was the pace of the greens. I couldn’t believe how slow they were.”
Woods was being a little easy on himself. He surely made a few more mistakes than that. But, at the age of 39 he is a man who knows how to get himself out of trouble, and as often as not, his errors merely provided opportunities for spectacular recoveries.
The best shots he played all day were the ones that got him out of real fixes. On the 7th his drive landed right behind a tree. He sized it up for a minute or two, then decided to play the most audacious little cut, right around the left side of trunk and away up the fairway into the heart of the green. It was a stupendous piece of skill, but it only earned him par for the hole.
Likewise his chip at the 12th, down at the bottom of Amen Corner. His tee-shot landed on the bank in front of the bunker, and rolled right back down into the water. He took a drop and then knocked his next shot over the creek and right into the pin.
The ball ricocheted away and left him a simple putt for a bogey. Odd thing was, despite the awful state of his short game back in Phoenix, so bad that it prompted a lot of talk about whether or not he had the yips, his play around the greens this Thursday was immaculate.
“It’s my strength again,” he said afterwards. Seems he has spent most of the last eight weeks doing nothing but hitting chips. “That’s why I’ve busted my butt. That’s why I took time off. That’s why I hit thousands and thousands of shots to make sure that it’s back to being my strength. I tried to hole most of them, that’s the thing. I’m back to hitting shots, making it hop, check on the second bounce, third bounce, I can figure those things out again.”
His driving, though, was as wayward as it has been for a long while. His first drive of the Masters landed straight in the second cut over on the right side. He recovered from that with a superb second that should have set up a routine par, but he left his putt five feet short, then missed the next too.
The greens, still damp from all the rain that’s fallen in the two days before the tournament, were as slow as he had ever known at Augusta. He and his partners, Jamie Donaldson and Jimmy Walker, all struggled.
“The balls just weren’t rolling out, and as a group we really struggled on getting the pace right and hitting the putts hard enough,” said Woods, who came back with a birdie at the 2nd, made with the first of several fine shots from the edge of the green, to four feet from the pin.
A bogey on the 9th was particularly annoying for him. “I played the wrong shot, I was trying to turn it down there and I really shouldn’t have turned it down there,” he said. “And then on top of that the next one I hit the wrong shot again. I tried to put the ball in the bunker when I probably should have put the ball short right of the bunker and pitched up.”
His drive on the 15th ended up in the pine straw. The microphones caught him saying “Tiger you dumbass”. At the end of it all though, he seemed happy enough. “You know, I’m still in it,” he said, showing a little more of the extraordinary self-confidence that has been buoying him up all week.
“I’m only nine back. And we have a long way to go. And we don’t know what the Masters is going to do, what they’re going to do with the greens or the golf course. You know how they like to change things every now and then.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010