April 9, 2010

Commentary: Same old Tiger at Augusta

Long drives, an inconsistent putter, his name on the leader board - it was almost as if Tiger Woods never left. Hello again, world.

AUGUSTA | LONG DRIVES, AN inconsistent putter, his name on the leader board - it was almost as if Tiger Woods never left.

Hello again, world.

Woods returned to competitive golf with a splash Thursday, firing a 4-under-par 68 that left the world's No. 1 player two shots off the lead following a hugely anticipated opening round at the Masters.

Woods was warmly received by the throngs of fans who lined Augusta National's fairways to welcome him back from a five-month hiatus following his Nov. 27 SUV crash and subsequent revelations of adultery.

While Augusta patrons greeted Woods warmly, the skies were not as friendly. Minutes before Woods' early-afternoon tee time, a single-engine airplane began circling the club pulling a banner that read: "Tiger: Did you mean bootyism?"

(When he issued a public statement in February, Woods said he planned to begin practicing Buddhism again.)

The plane returned later in the round with another banner: "Sex addict? Yeah, right. Sure. Me, too."

Woods said he never saw the signs.

From his first shot to his 68th, Woods was a picture of focus.

After a rousing reception as he walked from the practice range to the first tee, Woods choked down on his driver to make sure he landed in the fairway - and still outdrove playing partners K.J. Choi and Matt Kuchar.

"Oh, that layoff killed him, didn't it?" said Gary Dempsey, a Kansas City resident who attended his first Masters in 1997 when a 21-year-old Woods won by 12 strokes.

Woods took advantage of easy pin placements to break 70 for the first time in an opening round at Augusta. He made hay on the par-5s, going 5-under with a pair of eagles on Nos. 8 and 15 - his first two-eagle round here.

He could have gone lower but missed makable birdie putts at the 11th and 12th and failed to cash in on a third eagle attempt at the par-5 13th.

The top of the leader board looks like one from a Champions Tour tournament. Fred Couples, who has won three events in his first year on the senior circuit, has the first-day lead after a 6-under 66, his best round at Augusta.

Couples has one stroke and 10 years on 60-year-old Tom Watson, who heads a group of five players at 5-under.

Woods hit nine of 14 fairways but never strayed too far into the pines. He made a great birdie at the par-4 ninth after his drive hit a tree branch and landed in the left rough, leaving him without a clear shot to the green.

With the wind picking up and blowing in his face, Woods hit a sweeping five-iron from 200 yards that bounced toward the back of the green and rolled back to within 10 feet of the cup. Woods sank the putt to make the turn at 2-under.

Remember all the talk about how Woods' playing partners might choke playing under the pressure of the larger crowds the Woods Circus draws?

Well, Choi and Kuchar were so spooked they shot 5-under and 2-under, respectively, in what was the lowest-scoring group of the day.

"It was neat to have a front (row) seat for Tiger's welcome back. He had everybody wishing him well. It was fun to be a part of, and some darned good golf," Kuchar said. "I didn't know what to expect from a golfing standpoint. But he played great, and the whole group really played well."

Woods mostly stuck with his pledge to try to keep his emotions dialed down. His most demonstrative display came when he dropped his club in his follow-through after he pulled an approach shot left at the par-4 14th and made bogey.

Other than that, Woods was chatting with Kuchar, putting his arm around Choi and tipping his hat to the gallery.

"I was saying thank you all day," Woods said. "The people were just incredible all day."

Said Kuchar: "He had two eagles out there, nearly three eagles, and was just pretty cool about it. So I guess it was a little more in check.

"It's Thursday, too. I don't know if Thursday's the time to have huge first-pumps."

Woods can save those for Sunday. Based on his first competitive round since November, Woods will be in contention.

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