AUGUSTA, Ga. — Frustration was Tiger Woods’ constant companion Thursday at the 2023 Masters. There was pain in his rebuilt right leg, the kind of pain that never goes away, Tiger said. There were approach shots that failed and putts that failed. There were too many bogeys at the start and after a burst of momentum, a final bogey at the end.
All in all, it wasn’t the Tiger we remember, but the Tiger we came to know.
Woods finished with an unsatisfactory two-over-par 74 first round, well behind the leaders, and a dogged awareness that he couldn’t take advantage of Augusta National when the conditions were at their most welcoming.
“I just didn’t do the work I needed to do to get the ball closer,” five-time Masters champion Woods said afterwards. “Today was the perfect time to take the round under par, and I didn’t. Most guys go low today. It was the day to do that. Hopefully that tomorrow I’ll be a little better, a little sharper, and somehow I’m pushing my way through.
Tiger had a front-row seat to 25-year-old co-leader Viktor Hovland’s scintillating seven-under 65 and Xander Schauffele’s four-under performance that also found him in the standings. It was both ironic and a sign of the times that Tiger’s trio included the first-round co-leader and another player near the front, and neither did Tiger.
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But everything made sense. After taking nearly two months off from competitive golf, Woods was rusty. There were bogeys on numbers 3, 5 and 7. All that early misery happened in the first two hours on a course he absolutely loves and still loves on occasion. Sweat beaded on his face and seeped through his white shirt on a hot, humid day. It was a chore, and he knew it.
“I didn’t have very good speed at the start,” he said. “I had two three putts and therefore I’m a couple over par. I didn’t hit my irons close enough today. I didn’t look very good. I have to do a better job in the future to hopefully get back to this tournament.
No matter what happens or how late he is, some things never change: Tiger always thinks he can be in the mix on the weekends, which are supposed to be rainy, cold and miserable, not exactly the ideal conditions for a 47 yr- old with a swollen leg.
But there are always times for Tiger when the golf gods wake up and decide his fortunes are about to change. When a tricky chip on the par-5 eighth nestled inches from the cut, Tiger collected his first birdie and all of a sudden there was a bounce in his heavy and often labored stride.
After another bogey on the 11th, he threw back-to-back birdies on the 15th and 16th and a quick thought crossed your mind: could he birdie? This being 2023, not 2001 or 2002, the answer was definitely no. He finished 18 not with a bang, but with a final bogey.
Tiger and the Masters have the most fascinating relationship. If ever a golfer was made for a golf course, it’s Woods at Augusta National. He loves it here. For him, it’s home. So when he says, as he did this week, “I don’t know how much more I have in me” i.e. Masters appearances, fans look at him like no one else. another, and many stick around no matter what, staring at the lone figure in the fairway as if looking at a masterpiece in a museum.
His five wins here include his most unlikely triumph of 2019 aged 43. Can he start over? It’s highly unlikely, but with Tiger, you never mean never. What’s at stake for him, whether it’s a Thursday at the Masters or forever, isn’t so much golf. It’s the leg. Over the course of a four-round tournament, his scores almost always worsen due to the cumulative wear and tear his leg experiences while traveling the course.
Last year, when he staged a stunning comeback just 14 months after his car crash in February 2021, his scores went in the wrong direction: 71-74-78-78.
His scores in the only other tournament he entered this year, the Genesis Invitational almost two months ago, where he finished tied for 45th, were a bit different, but still illustrative of the problem: 69-74- 67-73.
“I think my game is better than it was last year right now,” Woods said earlier this week. “I think my stamina is better. But (the right leg) hurts me a little more than last year just because at that exact moment when I came back, I really hadn’t pushed it that often. … I can hit a lot of shots but the difficulty for me is going to be the forward march. It’s like that. I wish it were easier.
In three years, when he turns 50, he will be eligible for the senior PGA Tour Champions Tour, where he won’t have to walk as much.
“I’ve got another three years where I take the little buggy (golf cart) and I’m out there with Fred (couples),” he said with a smile, “but until then, no buggy .”
So he walks on, enduring both the mistakes and the constant pain, hoping that maybe there will be one last slice of magic for him in this place of all places.