Only a fool would write off Tiger Woods after first round at Augusta

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Tiger Woods found his wide-right tee ball on the 11th, slapped his leg in disgust and let out an exaggerated sigh. Things looked bleak on the Augusta National hole known as White Dogwood, until suddenly they didn't. Woods spotted a window through the forest at the Masters, because that is what geniuses do.

They see light where lesser players see darkness. And so, with his ball in the straw and his swing restricted by an annoying tree limb Thursday, Woods and caddie Joe LaCava repeatedly begged marshals to move patrons a safe distance away from Tiger's flight plan. He then decided to attack Amen Corner with a prayer of a line drive.

Woods executed the shot exactly as he envisioned it, at least until his ball hit a man's chair on its way toward the green. "God dang it," Tiger shrieked. Several fans in the immediate vicinity came away reporting that Woods also said, "I told them to move those people." As he headed toward his shot, Woods was heard saying, "That ball would've been on the f---ing green."

Marc Guertin, a South Carolina pro at Caledonia Golf & Fish Club, saw the ball hit the chair right after it nearly hit him. Tiger's shot, Guertin said, "had plenty of steam on it" and might've even reached the green. "It was a great shot there," Woods would say later. "Unfortunately, people ran out and it clipped them. Otherwise, it's just short right of the green, an easy up-and-down from there, where I was trying to leave it."

Woods' bogey at 11 preceded what he called "a terrible golf shot" on the 12th tee, a water ball that led to another bogey and a 3-over score two-thirds of the way home. "I could have easily let the round slip away from me," Woods said, "but I got it back."

And that was the beauty of this first round at the Masters, the first round of the rest of Tiger's life. The 42-year-old Woods fought to stay in the tournament just as fiercely as the 32-year-old Woods and the 22-year-old Woods would have fought. Honestly, under the bright sun and blue sky, the resourcefulness of the man dressed in black was a hell of a thing to see.

You know about the crippling pain and all the back surgeries. You know about the humiliating scandal that ultimately cost him his marriage. You know about the roadside, police video that showed a disoriented and overmedicated Tiger on the night he was arrested in May.

You know about Tiger's confessed fears that his playing days were going, going, gone.

"I only came up here the last couple of years just to have food," Woods said.

Somehow, some way, he entered the week as the betting favorite to set the Masters' champions dinner menu next spring. Woods hadn't played a major since 2015. He hadn't won a major since 2008. He hadn't won any tournament since 2013.

But his recent run of good health and inspiring play woke up the echoes and made Woods a serious threat to win his fifth green jacket. Tiger swore he didn't feel "jittery" entering his first heavyweight fight in a long time, but he's human. This was the first big tournament he was expected to win in forever, and his tone and body language seemed more urgent than it did when he was positively thrilled to contend on the weekend.

This wasn't the Florida swing, after all. The stakes and expectations had dramatically changed. This was Woods' chance to do something at the Masters akin to what a 46-year-old Jack Nicklaus did in 1986, when the world thought the Golden Bear was a washed-up, golden oldie.

So it seemed the entire Augusta National gallery gathered around the first tee at 10:42 a.m. ET, when the threesome of Woods, Marc Leishman and Tommy Fleetwood stepped onto the box. "Fore please," the man in the green jacket told the fans. "Tiger Woods, now driving." Yes, they keep it simple here at the Masters.

Woods sent his first tee shot wide left into the fans, yet recovered for his par. He failed to birdie the two par-5s on the front and made the turn at 1 over before gulping down some ibuprofen. "My surgeon says to take it all day," Woods said.

Tiger failed to birdie any of the four par-5s, the difference in his final score. But following his misadventures at Amen Corner, he birdied Nos. 14 and 16, the latter producing an old Tiger roar in the pines on a 12-footer that dropped through the right-side door. When he was done on the 18th, done shooting his 1-over 73, Woods removed his cap and tipped it to the fans while mouthing his thank-yous.

"It was great to be back out there again," he said. "It's nice that I came out to play and know that I had the golf course in front of me."

Though Jordan Spieth shot a 6-under 66 to take the first-round lead, this was not an easy golf course Thursday. Sergio Garcia, defending champ, put five balls in the water on the 15th for a record score of 13 and a total of 9-over 81. Woods didn't hit it great and didn't make any putts and didn't do any damage on the long holes he has long dominated at the Masters and still managed a 73. He's seven shots behind Spieth, the same Masters champ who two years ago blew a five-shot lead with nine holes to play. Only a fool would write off Woods with three rounds to go.

But in the end, this tournament isn't only about winning and losing for Tiger, the ultimate win-or-else golfer. This year, the journey to Augusta National is more relevant than the final destination.

"The crowds have been incredible," Woods said. "It's been awesome this entire comeback. I got a standing ovation on the range. Coming up to the first tee, people come out of the clubhouse and the putting green, they're really into it."

Once upon a time, Woods ignored the people and the noise and the love. He's a more embraceable figure at 42, and still a viable contender with a chance to add to his 14 major titles.

To those of us who wanted to see this all-time great healthy and competitive just one more time, his good walk unspoiled Thursday was a truly special thing to watch.