AUGUSTA, Ga. — One round and nine behind. Tiger Woods is off and — stumbling? Maybe, probably not. A man doesn’t sit out tournament golf for nearly two months then dominate the Masters, an event comprised of competitors who fit that designation. That’s not a bad beginning for him.
Woods opened the first major of the year, and his first tournament since early February, with a one-over par 73. Not what he wanted, certainly, but perhaps what he expected. And probably what most of us expected, too.
“I felt good,” said Woods, his upbeat mood contrasting with his pessimism in February. “I feel like I hit the ball well enough to shoot three-under par. Our entire group was struggling with the greens.”
Maybe, as he told us earlier in the week, Woods, “worked his ass off” on a game desperately in need of repair. And some of the effort was reflected in a short game that, ironically after the embarrassment at Phoenix and the injury at Torrey Pines, kept his score from being worse.
Yet only a dreamer would believe Woods, despite the successes of the past, would beat up an Augusta National course so benign that Jordan Spieth would unload with an 8-under par 64 and Tom Watson, with a 71, would shoot the lowest Masters round in history for someone age 65.
This is a new Tiger, who in many respects is a battered Tiger, who may not have lost his touch but apparently has lost his confidence. The weeks and months go by, and the Woods, who once shook golf to its underpinnings, who unnerved the opposition merely by signing his name on the entry list, is nowhere to be found.
At 39, after a year of injury and surgery, Woods is just one of many, an ordinary professional golfer. After 18 holes, he is in 41st in a field of 96 entrants, ahead of Zach Johnson, Graeme McDowell and Jim Furyk but behind Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and, naturally, Spieth, who shot a blazing 64 despite one bogey.
If Spieth, the 21-year-old from Texas, is the future of American golf, Woods appears to be the past. He’s fighting himself as well as Father Time. Spieth may get appreciably better, which closes the door on Woods even if does become marginally better.
Before this 79th Masters, Tiger had played only 47 unimpressive holes of competitive golf this calendar year. Now he has a reference point. Now, we have a reference point. A day that started with the three greats — Watson, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer — hitting the ceremonial opening drives, closed with so many questions about Woods still unanswered.
We know Woods can play a full 18. We know he can make birdies. We know he can save pars. What we don’t know is where he’ll go from here, even to make the cut. Because at the Masters, having to be in the top 44 plus ties, it’s quite possible he will.
For Woods, the truth is the short game that bewitched him earlier in the year has been conquered. That used to be what gave him the edge over the others, which enabled him to win four previous Masters. Remember that chip-in on 16 a decade ago, one that was turned into a Nike commercial?
“It’s my strength again,” Tiger said of his chipping and putting. “That’s why I busted my butt. That’s why I took time off. That’s why I hit thousands of shots, to make sure that it’s back to being my strength.” And it was. Golfers rarely become better putters as they grow older, but maybe Tiger will be the exception.
“You know I’m still in [the tournament],” Woods insisted, as if this were 2005 and not 2015. “I’m only nine back.”
Spieth wasn’t struggling, though. Neither were Charlie Hoffman and Justin Rose, each of whom shot 67. Golfers always have reasons, if not excuses. But the game has an adage also: Your scorecard tells the truth.
Tiger was never nine back in the old days, the Tiger days. This is a different era and a different Tiger. As the man wrote, you can’t go home again.
Art Spander has been covering Bay Area sports since 1965 and also writes on www.artspander.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.