Woods shows mixed bag in return to golf

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Tiger Woods seemed to have a plan entering the Masters, and it went something like this: Kill 'em with kindness. Deprogram the robotic approach to playing golf and show some feel-good human emotion on the road to major championship recovery.

And why not? Once upon a time, Jack Nicklaus lost weight, let his hair grow and jazzed up his wardrobe in an attempt to be a little more user-friendly. To be a little more Arnie-like.

But Nicklaus was a dominant figure in his prime when he made the stylistic changes suggested/demanded by his friends and his wife. Woods? He arrived at Augusta National as something of a desperate, older man, which might explain why he played the Par 3 Contest for the first time in 11 years, hired his ultra-cute son and daughter as his caddies, and danced to hip-hop music during practice when he wasn't pulling opponents in for hugs they weren't used to receiving.

A lot of people wanted this new and improved Woods to go out there Thursday, immediately shake off two months' worth of rust, and throw the kind of game at Augusta National that Mets pitcher Matt Harvey threw at the Nationals. Only it didn't happen. Woods shot a workmanlike 1-over 73, and landed 9 big strokes behind 21-year-old Jordan Spieth, who did a spot-on impression of a 21-year-old 1997 Tiger Woods.

"I won the Masters when Jordan was still in diapers," Woods said this week.

Spieth is all grown up now, just another gifted contender who has no fear of Woods, or of what Woods has become. Tiger hadn't played since early February, when he bailed in the middle of his opening round in San Diego because, he said, his glutes had deactivated on him. (And who among us hasn't had that happen during an otherwise good walk unspoiled?) Woods said he worked his you-know-what off. He said he worked on his game and his body in solitude, confessing that clubs occasionally flew out of his hands and that his oft-injured back occasionally felt tight and sore along the way.

So people expected some rust in Round 1, and some rust is precisely what they got. Woods drove his ball wide right on the first hole and ultimately missed a short par putt. He cost himself a birdie at the third by being too aggressive on his first chip of the day, and then followed with a bogey at the next hole.

Woods hit a dreadful drive and second shot (from the first fairway) at No. 9, and landed his tee shot at the 12th on the downslope that sent it into the welcoming waters of Rae's Creek. The good news? He didn't let the mistakes destroy him.

He didn't let that chip at the third unleash all of those short-game demons that had left him as golf's answer to Chuck Knoblauch trying to throw the ball to first base, even after Gary Player predicted such an early gaffe would lead to a "tragedy" of a score. Woods even delivered a vintage Tiger escape from behind a tree at No. 7, somehow finding the green and saving par.

"I felt good," Woods said. "I felt like I hit the ball well enough to shoot 3 under par."

The bad news, other than the fact he didn't shoot 3 under par? Woods left that kinder, gentler, looser side of himself stuffed inside his locker. He yanked his putter in frustration after the miss at the first, angrily swung his club -- as if trying to blast an annoying wasp -- after launching his wayward second shot at No. 9 (again, from the first fairway) into the trees, and retreated in a slumped-shoulders way from the sight of two or three other strokes gone awry.

But for Camp Tiger, that was tantamount to sweating the small stuff.

"His chipping was awesome," Woods' caddie, Joe LaCava, told ESPN.com. "It's a work in progress but he's on the uptrend. He's always going to fight, but he was good today. Lot of positives."

Mark O'Meara, who practiced with Woods and played with him in the Par 3, put Tiger's game at an 8 on a scale of 1-10 and described a swing that seemed faster and more powerful. This round didn't feel like an 8. It felt more like a 6.5, maybe a 7 given the circumstances.

"He played OK," said Jimmy Walker, one of the men paired with him. "He had a couple of wild shots, we all did today. So there was nothing big. He had some good pars where he got up and down. It was good to see him playing good. It's probably not what he wanted."

No, Tiger Woods wanted to be much closer to Spieth's lead. He said he came to Augusta National to win, not to compete, but the slow greens betrayed him, stopping him from getting the ball to the hole.

But the thing that terrified him most, the chipping, turned out to be a source of renewed faith.

"It's my strength again," Woods said of his short game. "That's why I've busted my butt. That's why I took time off. That's why I hit thousands and thousands of shots to make sure that it's back to being my strength."

For one day, anyway. Woods is still a 39-year-old guy who hasn't won a major championship in nearly seven years, and who has broken par only once in his past 14 major rounds.

Younger, stronger players routinely hit their balls past his -- way past his -- stripping away layers of that Tiger-in-his-prime aura. But Thursday afternoon, Woods was keeping a firm grip on what used to be the strongest club in his bag -- self-belief.

"You know, I'm still in it," he said. "I'm only 9 back. And we have a long way to go."

No matter what happens Friday and beyond, this much was clear before the tournament started: Woods was never happier to be back at Augusta National. He spoke of his cherished memories of his father's appearance in 1997, after Earl Woods, in his son's words, "was dead at one point earlier that year and came back." He spoke of his children's role in the Par 3 Contest as a full-circle experience. He went out of his way to repair his relationship with O'Meara, once a good bud and mentor who had publicly complained that Woods had iced him out of the inner circle (O'Meara doesn't deal in omertà, you know).

Woods humanized himself by joking about his advanced age and the challenges of chasing his two children from this innocent pursuit to that one. If nothing else, he said, his soccer game had improved.

But now Tiger Woods needs his golf game to improve. Ten years after he won his fourth and most recent Masters title, Woods appears to be getting a little better. He still has a million miles to go before that's even close to being good enough.