Tiger Woods produced flashes of brilliance, moments of frustration and signs of rustiness as he enjoyed a remarkable return to action in the 86th Masters.
Playing his first top-level tournament since the same event was staged in November 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Woods returned an opening one-under-par 71 in testing conditions at Augusta National.
The 15-time major winner carded three birdies and two bogeys to lie just three shots behind clubhouse leader Cameron Smith, the Players Championship winner sandwiching eight birdies between double bogeys on the first and 18th.
“I did not have a very good warm-up at all, I hit it awful,” Woods told ESPN. “But as the round built I was able to get into the red, made two stupid mistakes at eight but fought back to be in the red for the day I am right where I need to be.”
Woods admitted he had been “saving” his body during his limited pre-tournament practice following the severe injuries suffered in his car accident last year, adding: “I came up here as a test run and was able to play 27 holes and I felt good.
“The whole idea was to keep pushing but keep recovering. That’s the hard part every night. I’ve been doing that, my team has been incredible. I figured once the adrenalin kicks in and I get fired up I should be able to handle my business.”
A 30-minute delay due to bad weather meant Woods started his first round at 1104 local time (1604BST), coincidentally the same time at which he teed off on day one in 2019.
Woods went on to win his 15th major title, 3,954 days since he claimed his previous one when he beat Rocco Mediate in a play-off for the 2008 US Open, despite a double stress fracture and knee injury which prompted season-ending surgery.
The emotional victory came two years after he told Jack Nicklaus “I’m done” during the pre-tournament Champions Dinner, after which he flew straight to London to see the consultant who recommended he undergo what proved to be career-saving spinal fusion surgery .
This year, it was the severe leg injuries suffered in a car crash in February last year which had placed his Masters participation in serious jeopardy, but Woods had once again challenged the odds to take his place in the field and insisted he believed he could win a sixth green jacket.
Speaking after performing his duties as honorary starter alongside Gary Player and Tom Watson, Nicklaus had cast doubt on that, saying: “Tiger I’m sure will be very competitive this week.
“I don’t know whether he can win or not. He hasn’t played any competition for a long time.”
Woods holed from 10 feet for par on the first and, after lipping out on the fifth, hit a superb tee shot to two feet on the next to set up a tap-in birdie.
The 46-year-old bogeyed the par-five eighth after needing four to get down from 50 yards short of the green, but saved par on the next after a pulled drive into the trees and an approach which rolled back off the green, prompting a cry of “F*** off” from the five-time Masters champion.
A two-putt birdie on the par-five 13th briefly got Woods back into red figures, only for him to promptly bogey the next despite a brilliant escape from the pins following a terrible drive.
Woods, who was unable to squat down fully to read putts, still holed from 30 feet for birdie on the 16th and brilliantly saved par on the last after a pulled drive which struck a tree and left him 270 yards to the pin.
Former champion Danny Willett was a shot off the lead after an opening 69, with defending champion Hideki Matsuyama carding a 72.
England’s Paul Casey withdrew before the start of play due to the back injury which also forced him out of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play last month.