Back playing the Masters after a career-threatening car crash, Tiger Woods said he thought he could win a sixth green jacket and on Thursday he made a few more believers after carding a solid opening 71.
In his first competitive round of golf in 508 days, Woods mixed three birdie with two bogeys at Augusta National to sit three behind clubhouse leader Australian Cameron Smith, who started and finished with double bogeys in a four-under 68.
Although the year’s first major featured all of golf’s best, there was only one man most had come to see, the world’s 973rd ranked player Woods.
It was a remarkable effort from the 15-time major champion just 14 months after doctors had considered the possibility of having to amputate his right leg mangled in the single car accident.
“I fought back and for the day to end up in the red I am right where i need to be,” Woods said.
“I figured once the adrenalin kicks in and I got fired up and I got into my little world I should be able to handle business.”
Woods said he was prepared to play with pain and at times noticeably limped as he made his way around the undulating layout regarded as one of the toughest walks on the PGA Tour.
After COVID-19 limited the number of spectators allowed onto the grounds over the last two years, the crowds were back in force and bringing with them the familiar roars that echo through the tall Georgia pines.
The start was delayed 30 minutes due to thunderstorms but the dreary weather could not dampen the buzz as golf fans lucky enough to have secured one of sport’s most coveted tickets moved quickly to stake out their places around some of the sport’s most famous holes and wait for Woods to appear.
The 46-year-old, wearing a pink shirt and black pants, had his game face on as he walked out to the first tee where the entire length of the par-four 445-yard opening hole was lined with thousands of spectators.
After five consecutive pars, Woods nearly aced the par-three sixth hole where his tee shot stopped two feet from the cup to set up his first birdie, which was followed by his first bogey at the eighth.
Even par entering Amen Corner, Woods made it through the infamous stretch of holes unscathed, picking up his second birdie at 13.
That was followed by another bogey at 14 but the 16th provided vintage Woods as he rolled in a monster 29-foot birdie putt and celebrated with a trademark fist pump.
Meanwhile, Cameron Smith has continued his hot form to capture the clubhouse lead with a birdie-filled first round at the Masters.
Smith played majestically in blustery winds at Augusta National to card a four-under-par 68 on Thursday that could have been anything if not for two double-bogeys that bookended his round.
Smith shrugged off his first double on the opening hole to rattle in eight birdies to open up a two-shot buffer teeing off on the 18th.
Alas, Australia’s world No.6 finished his round as he started with a six on the par-four last after slicing his drive into the trees and then three-putting.
When he signed off, Smith was sharing the lead with Sungjae Im, the Korean who finished joint runner-up with Smith in 2020 behind Dustin Johnson.
Rain delayed Smith’s round by half an hour but nothing could stop him from picking up from where he left off in winning last month’s Players Championship in Florida.
The Queenslander hadn’t played competitively since bagging a record ten birdies in the final round at TPC Sawgrass. He arrived at Augusta National among the favourites and full of confidence.
Not even his sloppy six on the par-four opener, after he found a fairway bunker off the tee, then missed a seven-foot putt for bogey, could shake the 28-year-old’s belief.
After a scrambling par on the second, Smith made his first birdie on the fifth, then picked up further shots on six, eight and nine to reach the turn at two under.
When he birdied the treacherous par-three 12th as well over the water on Amen Corner, sinking an 11-footer, Smith found himself joint leader with Im.
But Smith quickly shot two shots clear with a hat trick of birdies on 14, 15 and 16 – only to falter at the last.
Among Australia’s other morning starters, Masters debutant Min Woo Lee had a rollercoaster round of one-over 73 featuring five birdies, four bogeys and a double.