AUGUSTA: Tiger Woods was three adrift through nine holes on Thursday in his unlikely quest for a record-equalling sixth Masters title, 14 months after a car crash left him with injuries so severe he feared he might lose a leg.
The 46-year-old, who has fallen to 973rd in the world rankings, said this week he thought his game was good enough to win a 16th major championship.
But he acknowledged his surgically repaired leg was an unknown quantity heading into his first top-flight competitive round in 17 months on the hilly, 7,510-yard Augusta National course.
“You know, 72 holes is a long road, and it’s going to be a tough challenge and a challenge that I’m up for,” Woods said days before the tournament.
Woods cut a vibrant figure in a hot pink shirt and black trousers — all the better for the thousands of Augusta patrons keen to get a glimpse of him to track their hero.
A 30-minute delay to the start because of pre-dawn thunderstorms only intensified the anticipation for Woods’s appearance on the first tee, where he was greeted with rapturous applause.
Woods wasn’t delighted with his opening drive, which came up short of the righthand fairway bunker. His approach trickled off the green but he drained a 10-foot par saving putt.
He opened with five straight pars, his approach at the fifth to 15 feet prompting a big smile for caddie Joe LaCava before Woods’s birdie putt lipped out.
But Woods followed with his first birdie of the day at the par-three sixth, where he landed his tee shot two feet from the pin.
He was in the trees lining the right side of the fairway at the seventh but saved par, but he gave back a shot at the eighth despite finding the fairway at the par-five.
After a lengthy wait to hit into the green, Woods came up short. His third shot also failed to reach the green and he was unable to make get a par-saving nine-foot putt to fall.
Woods was left off the tee on the way to a par at the ninth, where 23-year-old playing partner Joaquin Niemann — who wasn’t born when Woods won his first Masters title in 1997 — holed out for eagle to seize the early lead on three-under par.
Australian Cameron Smith, Charl Schwartzel and English veteran Lee Westwood were two-under in the early going.
Niemann is among a raft of young golfers whose careers were shaped by Woods’s influence.
Scottie Scheffler, 25, arrived at Augusta ranked number one in the world after winning his first three US PGA Tour titles in the space of two months.
Spain’s US Open champion Jon Rahm, 27, can regain the number one ranking he ceded to Scheffler with a first Masters victory, one of five players who can supplant the American this week along with reigning British Open champion Collin Morikawa, FedEx Cup champion Patrick Cantlay, rising Norwegian star Viktor Hovland and Smith.
Northern Ireland’s four-time major winner, Rory McIlroy, will be trying for the eighth time to complete a career Grand Slam with a Masters victory, while defending champion Hideki Matsuyama of Japan was even through eight holes.
But all the focus was on Woods, and whether he can pull off the most miraculous comeback yet in a career marked as much by his gritty determination to defy pain as by his sublime skill.
Woods won the 2008 US Open with a broken leg, then battled through five back surgeries, including a spinal fusion, before he won his 15th major title at the 2019 Masters.
“I mean, how many comebacks has he had?” former Masters champion Jordan Spieth marvelled.
Should he defy the odds and match Jack Nicklaus’s record of six green jackets Woods would become the third-oldest major winner in history and would surpass Nicklaus as the oldest Masters winner by a matter of weeks.
Published in Dawn, April 8th, 2022