Old-timers upstage Woods

Published 1:52 am Friday, April 9, 2010

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Tiger Woods played like the last five months never happened.

Even more surprising, he felt that way, too.

No longer the same person after he was caught cheating on his wife, Woods looked every bit the same golfer Thursday when he opened with a 4-under 68 — his best first round ever at Augusta National — that left him only two shots behind 50-year-old Fred Couples on an extraordinary opening day at the Masters.

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It just didn’t seem that way to Woods.

Standing on the first tee, looking down a fairway lined with thousands of spectators curious to see how he would respond to a sex scandal that shocked the world, Woods didn’t flinch.

“It felt normal,” he said. “Try to hit a little fade off the first tee, try to take something off of it and make sure I got it in play. That was about it. From there, I just went about my business.”

Indeed, he was the same Tiger.

He pledged to control his emotions on the course, yet there was little change. Woods twirled his club after a good drive, slammed it after a few bad ones. He pumped his fist after making the first of two eagles and sunk to his knees when he missed a birdie putt on the 16th that slowed his climb up the leaderboard.

And just like always, he complained about not making enough putts.

“Otherwise, it could have been a very special round,” Woods said.

Yet it was special in so many ways.

Couples, who played a practice round with Woods on Monday, sauntered along in tennis shoes and no socks and shot a 6-under 66. It was his best score ever at the Masters and made him the oldest player to be the outright leader for any round.

“I never really thought about what I was shooting,” said Couples, who already has won three times this year on the 50-and-older Champions Tour. “It was a fun day for me. I still think I can play, and if I putt well I’ve got to be some kind of factor in my mind.”

Tom Watson, at 60 the oldest player in this Masters, picked up from his amazing ride at last year’s British Open with a bogey-free round of 67 that left him tied with Lee Westwood, Phil Mickelson, PGA champion Y.E. Yang and K.J. Choi.

“My goals were to play better than I’ve played in the last five or six years, and I achieved that — for the first round,” Watson said. “I’m playing pretty well. I’ve said I have to play better than 90 percent to be successful on this golf course.”

Still, this day was always going to be about Woods.

He had not hit a competitive shot in 144 days, since winning the Australian Masters on Nov. 15 for his 82nd victory around the world. A four-time Masters champion, he has never come to Augusta National with so much uncertainty — about his game, and mostly how fans would respond to a player whose impeccable image had been shattered by tawdry tabloid tales of sex.

The patrons were on their best behavior, as expected at the most polite tournament in golf. Augusta National can’t control the perimeter of the course, however, and a couple of planes toted banners that poked fun at Woods — one for his pledge to get back to Buddhism (“Bootyism,” the banner said), another mocking claims he needed therapy as a sex addict.

On the ground, the gallery was mostly positive, with a few exceptions.

“He doesn’t have the right character and integrity to represent golf,” Larry Isenhour said. “That’s why I came out early this morning to applaud Jack Nicklaus.”

Nicklaus, the six-time Masters champion, joined Arnold Palmer as an honorary starter. The two old rivals hit the ceremonial tee shots to open the Masters, and chairman Billy Payne said, “The 2010 Masters is now officially begun. Have fun.”

And they did.

Clouds moved in quickly and kept the sun from baking out the greens, and some of the hole locations allowed for birdies. The low scores weren’t a surprise, only the names next to them.

Watson had two birdies in three holes to put his name on the leaderboard and bring back memories of his magical run at Turnberry last summer when he missed an eight-foot putt on last hole of regulation and then lost in a playoff at the British Open. He never went away this time, never made a bogey and wound up matching his best score ever at Augusta.

“I don’t know if you can put an age on how anybody is playing, but he’s playing like one of the best players in the world right now,” said Steve Marino, who played with Watson, as he did in the third round at the British.

Mickelson came to the Masters for the first time without having finished in the top five all year, but he looked as comfortable as ever, particularly on the back nine with an eagle-birdie-birdie stretch that put him atop the leaderboard at 67.

“I do love this place,” Mickelson said. “I don’t have to be perfect. I can miss a shot and still recover. It relaxes me when I go down Magnolia Lane.”

Westwood, Europe’s top player, had only broken 70 twice in his Masters career until running off seven birdies for a 67.

Throughout the morning, however, anticipation was building toward Woods’ return. A single row of fans stood behind the ropes along the first fairway a half-hour before Woods teed off. When he approached the green, the crowd stood 10-deep in spots, a gallery that included European Tour chief George O’Grady and about 15 people from Woods’ circle — his mother, friends, employees, Nike chairman Phil Knight and other sponsors.

Given all that transpired over the last five months — revelations of his womanizing, the loss of sponsors and a shattered reputation — it figured to be as nervous as Woods has been over an opening tee shot since his first as a pro.

“Fore, please. Now on the tee, Tiger Woods,” the starter said.

The crowd let out a spontaneous cheer, and more applause followed when Woods found the fairway. “One of the best drives I’ve ever seen him hit,” swing coach Hank Haney said.

From there, it looked as though Woods had never been gone.

“I got into the flow of the round early,” Woods said. “Got into the rhythm of just playing, making shots, thinking my way around golf course.”

Nothing required more thought than the ninth hole, where Woods hit the signature shot of his return to golf. He hit his drive too far left, blocked by the pines, and studied his options. A high soft shot into the breeze? A sweeping hook around the trees?

“Too much wind for a 6-iron,” he eventually told caddie Steve Williams.

With a 5-iron, he played a low hook and side-stepped all the way into the fairway to see the ball bound onto the green and settle about 15 feet from the flag, setting up an unlikely birdie.

“I’m surprised it held, because it did come out pretty low,” Woods said.

There were flashes of a more personable player. After a tee shot into the gallery at No. 5, a man said, “Let’s go, Tiger” when he arrived at the ball. “Where am I going to go?” Woods said back to him with a smile as he waited for the green to clear.

“I said thank you all the way. I was saying thank you all day. People were just incredible all day,” he said. “It was unbelievable. I mean, all day. People, I haven’t heard them cheer this loud in all my years here. Certainly helped keep my spirits up because I was missing a bunch of putts out there.”

The first fist pump came on his 8-foot eagle putt at the eighth hole.

And he still had a temper. He appeared to curse and slammed his club on the 11th when his tee shot headed toward the trees, and he slung down the driver after another poor shot on the 14th.

Mostly, though, this was his day to smile — he was playing golf again, and playing it well.

Hardly any rust from his five-month layoff, and no unusual jitters, either.

“I was just pretty calm all day. I was just trying to plod my way along and not throw away shots,” Woods said. “It wasn’t a day I could slash it all over the place. Had to hit the ball well and make some putts. …

“I felt this is what I can do. This is what I know I can do. Just go out there and just play,” he added. “I expected to go out here and shoot something under par today.”

Woods confessed no special satisfaction in his performance, dismissed any notion that it signified redemption.

“It meant that I’m two shots off the lead,” he said flatly. “That’s what it means.”

Nothing beyond that?

“I’m here to play a golf tournament,” he answered.