Roaring Return to Augusta: Tiger Shoots Opening 71 on One Good Leg. Surprises No One.
Tiger Woods didn’t win the Masters Thursday, but he didn’t lose it either, carding an opening round 71, tied for 9th and positioned perfectly to keep storylines of miracle comebacks and Hollywood finishes very much alive and fairway galleries buzzing all day with storybook whispers of yet another chapter of Tiger history.
Everything, no matter how improbable, is still mathematically intact for Tiger’s Master’s comeback for the ages. And from the moment he laced his first drive down the middle of the fairway, to his final tilting flamingo pirouette to retrieve a last par-saving putt of the day, the Augusta crowds seemed as willfully aware of that fact as Tiger himself. Maybe more.
Hobbling the course on a pulverized leg of mosaic pumice bone pieced back together with an Erector Set of hardware and 14-months of agony after a California canyon car accident that nearly made him a retired amputee, Woods returned to Augusta National with a signature roar, scoring a one-under-par opening round and basking in the astonished vocal affection of well-wishers and spectators that greeted every shot like it was 1997 all over again. And in some ways, maybe it is.
When even walking 72 golf holes unaided is an achievement, even the oldest things are new again. For the first time since his implausibly perfect Augusta debut, Eldrick Tiger Woods seemed genuinely grateful to be on a golf course. And genuinely appreciative of the public’s reception to his return.
For a man whose lifetime focal point of public fascination has transomed from child prodigy to physical specimen, to champion demigod to tabloid oddity, perhaps this latest stroll through the “get well soon” section of the greeting card aisle is a mellow and welcome phase. Like a carnation-pink shirt under the warm Georgia sun, or the flecks of gray tracing the temples of a face that finally matches his age, Tiger wore all things well on this comeback Thursday.
From his noticeably deliberate and uneven gait, to a stiffer and more laborious setup prior to swings, this is a different Tiger Woods. Exactly 25 years after he arrived all rubber bands and corkscrew swings to serve rookie notice that forced the redesign of PGA course lengths and pin placements, the swagger and languid fluidity of Tiger-the-cub are replaced now with the plodding determination of muscular resolve.
Shoulders wider and familiar biceps bulging, it’s visibly obvious Tiger’s road to physical recovery over the past year involved innumerable torture sessions of upper body compensation for a protracted period of lower body immobility. Three months in a hospital bed, to be exact. If there is to be a miracle seventh Green Jacket in the Sunday offing, it will be be the largest coat size in Tiger’s closet. And inarguably, the most improbable in the history of the sport.
For a man who might just as easily have worn a bodybag 14 months ago, Tiger’s 2022 return to a PGA venue already makes Jack Nicklaus’s 1986 Master’s victory at Tiger’s identical age of 46 seem routine. Look up the crash scene photos if you disagree.
After fused vertebrae and multiple knee surgeries and more time in intensive care than in the tee box, the spring-tailed youthful ebullience of his ‘Tigger phase’ is gone forever. Time makes fools of us all. But Thursday, Tiger the elder gave measured warning of a crafty carnivore yet on the prowl, still a fearsome predator with all the tools to leave a nasty mark, sharply fanged and keen to the hunt, with a wizened and refocused gaze and new things to prove about his ultimate place in the PGA pantheon.
Just as in those miracle days of 1997, Tiger Woods is trying to get his legs underneath him in the spotlight of the world stage. Now, the whole world watches to see whether any miracles await beyond an improbable journey from ambulance to world class form, or of living to golf another day.
When nothing is expected, everything becomes a gift. And for this moment, Tiger is looking no Augusta gifts in the mouth. A course so long, so narrow, and precariously slanted, even the best players on the tour are guaranteed into trouble. It is the ability to get out of trouble artfully that frequently determines the Masters winner.
Tiger’s game is nothing if not a study in converting difficult lies into pars. His life too, come to think of it.
Only Las Vegas odds-making fools about to go broke and naturally unfit gazelles, about to be devoured for lunch at Amen Corner would count him completely out.