AUGUSTA NATIONAL — There are few set-piece openings in sport like the walk to the first tee on Masters Thursday. Throw into the pageant the greatest golfer of the age and you have the equivalent of Caesar returning through the gates of Rome, the Sun King holding court in Versailles. Pure, unadulterated, megastar heft.
Joaquin Niemann, who hits the ball a mile, and Louis Oosthuizen, who possesses arguably the prettiest motion in golf, were simply part of the chorus. Polite applause greeted both. Tiger Woods met with bacchanal frenzy. Hell, even the clouds parted after two days of heavy rain and tornados that delayed the start of play by 30 minutes.
Woods has perfected the demigod role, of course. The walk is deliberate, the back ramrod straight and the eyes fixed on some imaginary spot in the distance. No sheriff ever cleaned up town with greater conviction, especially in a fuchsia pink shirt. This entrance was everything the tournament hoped it would be; golf’s stellar presence bringing a sense of theatre to the occasion.
His opening tee shot was modest, blocked right short of the bunker and a little too close to the trees. From there he could not hold the green with his approach, the ball rolling off the putting surface, leaving him with a 40-yard chip to the pin. The ball gripped the rain-softened greens as it landed, leaving Woods with a 12-footer for par. He was the last to play. A cathedral hush settled on the gallery as Woods addressed his ball. In it went, straight and true. Go Tiger!
The early moments of the Masters are all about minimising mistakes. Woods recovered his poor drive with that golden putting stroke. He navigated the following holes with conservative rigour. His approach to the devilish fifth green deserved better than to take the slope and end 10 feet past the pin. The cheer told him it should have been closer. Still, a par here feels like a birdie.
He was now into the round, the adrenalin pumping. His approach to the 6th was peak Woods, landing two feet from the pin in the upper right quadrant of the green. It takes serious plums to go for that pin. The walk to his ball was almost a glorious reprise of his youth, swagger with a limp if you will.
Augusta was jumping now.
Danny Willett and Cameron Smith led the way at three under par. New world No 1 Scottie Scheffler reached the turn in two under but none of them have won more than 80 times on the PGA tour nor claimed 15 majors.
Mature adults jostled for position like children in the playground to get the best view. One observer was stunned to see the gap between her and a tree beside the 6th green violated by a photographer in hunter-gatherer mode. “Well excuse me,” she said. “You’re obviously not from the South.”
The madding crowd swung round quickly to relocate to the 7th tee, where Woods had the honour. “Oh, oh, that’s going right. Not good,” said a budding Peter Alliss. Niemann and Oosthuizen were beautifully positioned in advanced positions down the middle. Woods was in the pine needles under a canopy of branches. He had no shot to the green. Or rather, mortals had no shot. He opened his stance and threaded a low fade to the front edge, from where he chipped it dead to save par. The roar of the crowd shivered the roots of the trees.
Woods: We worked so hard
“I am proud of my whole team. We worked so hard. We’ve never taken a day off once I got out out of the bed.
“There are easier days than others, if my leg didn’t work that well that day we did upper body, but we did something every single day and it led me to this opportunity to play at The Masters.
“Lo and behold here we are and as of now I am only three back.”
There was butchery too as well as brass. He won’t be replaying the 8th anytime soon after taking four to get down from 50 yards. Neither will the 14th live long in his memory: despite another miraculous stroke off the pine needles he could not salvage par. Disappointment is allowed nil houseroom in the mind of Woods. He simply grinds it down into positive particles and goes again.
He was back in red numbers with a birdie at 16. Not quite the full fist pump rendition of 2005, when he chipped one round the corner and saw it track all the way to the lip of the cup before submitting to gravity’s sweet caress.
Still the quick shake of his fist had the members rolling in their chairs. There was another almighty cheer at the last, this time in relief at an eight-foot par save following a tugged drive into the trees down the left.
Woods had done his job with an opening 71 to close three off the early clubhouse lead. Playing partner Niemann outscored him with a 69 but that was of no relevance to this audience. It was enough to have their champion back 14 months after the car crash that might have ended fatally.