AUGUSTA, Ga. — Sixteen holes into the best opening Masters round of his career, Tiger Woods hit his worst shot of the day. With 75 yards to the pin—“a perfect number,” he said later—on the 570-yard, par-5 eighth hole, he grabbed a 60-degree wedge. He was a good pitch away from a short birdie putt to drop his score to five under par.
Instead he hit it short of the green’s back ledge and wound up 38 feet shy of the hole. He expelled a string of expletives. He appeared to think better of throwing, and then of breaking, his club. Instead he returned it to his bag, which is embroidered with 1997, 2001, 2002, 2005, 2019—the years he has won here.
At times, Woods veers toward nostalgia. He choked up on Tuesday when discussing how his stunning victory here 19 months ago represented “coming full circle” in his career: Where he had once hugged his father, he instead hugged his son. “I may never have the opportunity to take the jacket off-property again,” he mused. (Winners retain the green jacket for a year; after that, it stays at Augusta National.)
But moments like that one Thursday afternoon on No. 8 remind us that he is a long way from serving as ceremonial starter. He finished at four under par, tied for fifth. He birdied Nos. 13, 15 and 16. His 68 tied his lowest career score here on a Thursday, and gave him his first career Thursday without a bogey.
He was asked after the round if he had surprised himself at all. He did not answer directly. Instead he reminded those in attendance that he has had some success here.
“I think that understanding how to play this golf course is so important,” he said.
This is not quite the golf course on which Woods has spent so much time, though. Most notable was the crowd energy. In a normal year, galleries are packed 20 deep. Many people following Woods never get a clear view of him. On Thursday, some two dozen people could see his every move: his girlfriend, Erica Herman; his friend and confidant Rob McNamara; a dozen or so reporters and photographers; and a collection of Augusta National members and their spouses that included NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred and former Colts and Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning. Woods’s profanities on No. 8 echoed about as loudly as the crowd’s response to his birdies.
Even smaller details have changed. Woods and caddie Joe LaCava strode confidently toward the usual scoring area after the round only to be redirected by an official: In a nod to COVID-19 concerns, players now sign their scorecards in the clubhouse, which is larger and allows for more social distancing.
And the course itself is different. In November, the wind blows from the north, lengthening the course. And there has been rain all week, softening both the greens and Woods’s advantage here.
The weather threatened to derail Woods’s round. Woods found himself, as he often does here, scheduled to play early on Thursday and late on Friday. He generally prefers that draw, as it gives him more time to recover between rounds than the late-early groups, but this year he seemed to catch a bad break: The forecast called for downpours all morning and clear skies all afternoon. But the thunderstorms were so bad that the tournament committee bumped play back nearly three hours. In the end, everyone got good weather, but only the early groups got to finish. Forty-four players were pulled off the course at 5:30 p.m. with their first round unfinished. The unluckiest men will have to play 28 holes on Friday, starting at 7:30 a.m.
Woods, on the other hand, can get some sleep, and try to get his body ready for the second round. He said he was largely happy with how he played on Thursday, but he also tempered his enthusiasm.
“I got off to a fast start today, which is good, but I think everyone is,” he said. “Everyone is going low out there today. With these conditions, you have to. You have to be aggressive.”
He will try to tie Jack Nicklaus for his sixth green jacket—a perfect number.