Jeff Schultz

This AJC sports blogger takes things seriously when he has to, but he really would rather not

Tiger Woods’ return to Masters filled with hazards, comebacks


There was a standing ovation at the practice range. There was another ovation at the putting green. Then when he walked out of the clubhouse. Then at the first tee.

It’s believed to be the loudest and most enthusiastic reception ever at Augusta National for the world’s 106th-ranked player.

“Yeah, I was pretty sure the anticipation wasn’t about me,” England’s Tommy Fleetwood said later.

It wasn’t. And Fleetwood is ranked 12th.

Tiger Woods made his official return to the Masters on Thursday following a two-year absence following multiple back surgeries. For most of the day, he seemed bent on exploring every inch of the 7,435-yard (or 267,660-inch) course.

He hit pine straw. He hit sand. Ht hit it between trees and between patrons. He hit water. He hit a chair.

He would’ve hit squirrels and birds and lizards but Augusta National officials do an amazing job of stashing all forms of wildlife in a secret warehouse tournament week.

Still, it wasn’t a dreadful afternoon for someone who hadn’t played a round in the Masters in two years and hasn’t won a tournament in five.

“I only came up here the last couple of years just to have food,” said Woods, who’s still sort of upright after four back surgeries.

He spent much of his first round trending toward his worst Masters’ opening round in history (a 76 in 2003). When he bogeyed four of the first 12 holes, the thought occurred he could miss the cut in Augusta for his first time as a pro.

But despite several regrettable moments, despite hitting only eight of 14 fairways and playing the four par-5s even, Woods scrambled back from 3-over par as he left Amen Corner to birdie two of the last five holes and shoot 1-over-73. It was the same as his final round in 2015.

Never mind the leaderboard. He didn’t even shoot as well as the two players in his group: Marc Leishman (2 under) or Fleetwood (par).

As for how he handled the buildup to this, “The nerves have been normal. I wasn’t flying high, I wasn’t jittery. I was confident in what I was doing.”

Too often, he just wasn’t very good. He was the biggest story entering this week because of his recent comeback, and because he’s Tiger.

But he’s clearly not all the way back. Not close. He hit enough good shots after too many bad ones to give himself a chance, although sitting seven shots behind leader Jordan Spieth (6-under) is not ideal.

The good news: On those occasions when he bent over in agony, it was because of a bad shot, not because his back was killing him.

“Ibuprofen,” he said when asked if he was taking medication. “My surgeon says take it all day.” (This is an important subject for a man recently out of a drug treatment facility.)

After that series of ovations, Woods pulled his first tee shot into the pine straw to the left of the fairway. It was a low fade that didn’t fade, and set the tone for the day.

He found the bunker in three of the next four holes (leading to two bogeys). He yelled, “No! No! No!” after shots on 9, 10 and 11.

The magic of prayer had no impact.

He saved par on No. 9. But he bogeyed 10, and then on 11 hit his tee shots into the trees (again), then slapped a low iron shot into the gallery.

An expletive was audible. Woods was upset. He said later he asked marshals to move the fans back further, hoping to hit a low approach shot that he anticipated would bounce and roll down toward the green. Instead, the ball hit the bottom of a chair near a cluster of fans who didn’t leave enough room for the shot.

“It was a great shot,” Woods said. “Unfortunately, the people ran out and I clipped ’em. Otherwise, it’s just short of the green. Easy up/down from there, where I was trying to leave it.”

An implosion seemed imminent. On No. 12, Woods’ tee shot dropped short and rolled into Rae’s Creek.

He dismissed his lingering anger from the previous hole, saying, “Just a terrible golf shot.”

It took a 15-foot putt to prevent a double bogey. “I could’ve easily allowed it to slip away from me, but I got it back.”

Good. Bad. Good. Bad. The day was a study in survival.

He birdied 14. Then he shanked his tee shot on the 15th into an island of trees. He scrambled back to save par. But playing four par-5s even at Augusta is never a good sign. In 20 previous Masters, Woods played the par-5s at 150-under.

Woods’ overstatement on the conditions off the tee: “It’s a day when the wind was kind of puffing up, changing directions.”

Woods’ understatement on the key holes: “I didn’t play the par-5s very well.”

He’ll need to play better to win this. He’ll need to play better just to make it onto the leaderboard. He is 13 years removed from his last Masters victory. Success is no longer assumed.

“Seventy-three is fine,” he said. “By the end of the week, this will be a pretty packed leaderboard. It’s really hard to run away from it. It’s also really easy to lose it.”

He never teased the first part of that. He certainly showed the second.

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