AUGUSTA, Ga. — Returning to golf after a sex scandal and trying to rebuild his life, Tiger Woods quickly showed that his game was still in good shape.
Woods, no longer sporting the goatee he had worn during practice, started the Masters with two straight pars before making a short birdie putt at the third hole in one of the most scrutinized opening rounds in golf history. Four more pars followed, leaving him at 1 under and solidly in contention on a blustery first day at Augusta National.
No was sure what to expect from the four-time Masters champion, returning to competitive play for the first time since a Thanksgiving night car wreck led to revelations of numerous extramarital affairs.
Woods heard nothing but cheers, though a small plane flew overhead pulling a banner with a catty word play on Buddhism, his religion, in reference to the scandal.
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Nothing, however, was going to overshadow the world’s greatest player returning from an astonishing downfall and five-month layoff, not even Phil Mickelson tied for the top spot on the leaderboard and another turn-back-the-clock performance by Tom Watson.
Flashing a smile at the opening tee, Woods hit his opening drive into the fairway and put his second shot within about 15 feet of the cup, but his birdie attempt curled just wide.
About the time Watson was finishing, Woods took another par at No. 2, knocking his second shot over the green, against the edge of a bunker. A high wedge didn’t spin back as much as he would have liked, and a testy downhill putt for birdie wasn’t close.
But he bounced back at No. 3, the shortest par-4 hole on the course. Woods knocked his second shot to 5 feet and rolled in the birdie.
“Make us proud!” a fan yelled.
Woods was in the next-to-last group, playing with K.J. Choi and Matt Kuchar. There was some question whether there would be a rain delay as skies darkened and the wind gusted up to 22 mph ahead of an approaching storm front.
The 60-year-old Watson, who nearly became the oldest major winner in golf history at last year’s British Open, showed that wasn’t a fluke. He grabbed the clubhouse lead with a 5-under 67, tying his best round at Augusta.
The last time he did it was 20 years ago. Watson closed with a 5-foot birdie putt at the tough 18th hole, set up by a brilliant iron shot that skipped along the right side of the green, caught the ridge and turned back toward the flag.
“What made the day so worthwhile was having my son Michael caddie for me,” Watson said. “I wanted to shoot a good score for Michael.”
Mickelson was among three other morning starters who matched Watson’s 67, joined by reigning PGA Championship winner Y.E. Yang and England’s Lee Westwood, seeking his first major title.
Mickelson had a blistering eagle-birdie-birdie stretch starting at the par-5 13th, and his score could have been even lower. He missed birdie tries of about 10 feet at No. 16 and a 5-footer at the 18th.
Anthony Kim endured a wild back side on his way to a 68. He started with three straight bogeys, made an eagle at 13, another bogey at the 14th, then closed with three straight birdies. His only par after the turn came at No. 16.
David Toms, who failed to qualify for the Masters a year ago, returned with a 69. Defending Masters champion Angel Cabrera got off to a strong start with a 3-under 33 at the turn, but a double-bogey 7 at the 13th sent him tumbling to a 73.
Tocha Cunningham waited along the first fairway with her 15-year-old son, Jordan Salley, who is a huge fans of Woods and was attending his first Masters
“I’m ready to watch him. He’s always been my favorite player. He’s always been an inspiration,” Jordan said.
The mother tried to discuss the scandal with her son.
“He understood, but Jordan did not want to talk about it because Tiger is his hero,” she said. “He wanted to look beyond the personal and just focus on the golf.”
Officials at Augusta National insisted that no one player — not even when it’s the world’s best embroiled in a scandal — would overshadow their tournament. And for a few moments, at least, that was the case as Jack Nicklaus joined Arnold Palmer at the first tee shortly after sunrise for the opening shots.
“I’ve never been up this early at Augusta,” cracked the 70-year-old Nicklaus, who won a record six green jackets and agreed to return this year to join Palmer in a ceremonial role.
Sentimentality aside, most patrons were eager to get a look at Woods in comeback mode.
Bill Campbell set up his chair along the second fairway, hoping to catch one of the golfer’s early shots.
“I’m expecting him to be wild off the tee,” Campbell said, “but I won’t be surprised if he pulls off a great round.”
Mark Felt stationed himself along the third tee, which also afforded a view of the seventh green.
“He’s going to come back sometime,” Felt said. “Might as well be here.”
Nicklaus, a record six-time champion who last played at the Masters in 2005, agreed to return this year to hit the opening shots with Palmer. They both struck it down the right side, just off the fairway. Two security guards hustled out to pick up the balls.
“I hit a rookie tee shot,” Nicklaus said with a smile. “I didn’t put my contacts in, so I had no idea where it went. As long as I didn’t hear it land, it’s OK.”