AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The thousands of folks gathered along the right side of the first fairway at Augusta National knew which group had the tee box nearly 300 yards away, but except for the few with binoculars and a front-row spot, they were aware of which player was up only by rumor and assumption. So when a tee shot in the Tiger Woods' threesome careened wildly into the tall Georgia pines, there was an orderly migration toward the ball -- in the civil Masters style -- with the assumed conclusion the wayward shot was that of Woods. They were wrong. The ball belonged to Robert Allenby.
But the reaction of those fans -- in fact the reaction of those gathered around the tee box as well -- was indicative of the strange new world in which the once undisputed best player in the world now performs. Poor shots no longer come as a surprise, nor are Woods' mistakes expected to be erased with a miraculous recovery shot as they have been for the decade and a half he has ruled the roost in golf. Suddenly, rounds that are good-enough are viewed as successes.
"I hit a lot of beautiful putts, a lot of beautiful putts," Woods said after missing a 6-foot birdie try on the final hole. "They were just skirting the edge, so hopefully, they will start going in." That's something that hasn't been happening for Woods for the better part of two years, before the much-discussed swing change and that much-discussed other situation. While the cool thing to do is talk about Tiger's swing change and his wild driver, the truth of the matter is that his short game, especially with the putter, is nowhere near what it was when he was at his best.
And Augusta National is not place to struggle with the putter -- or even be average. The winner here always putts lights out. To get ready for the lightning-fast greens at the National, Woods had Nike make him a putter with a softer face that deadens the way the ball jumps off the club head. Didn't help. He needed 30 putts -- 120 putts over four rounds does not win the Masters -- had one three-putt green and missed that six-footer for birdie on No. 18. The Tiger we have grown used to never missed the putt after hitting a great shot in close. "I just pulled it," he said. "Bad putt."
But there is also more going on here. Top to bottom, Woods was nothing more than ordinary in the opening round, which is not to say he is not capable of finding the genius switch sometime over the next three days. Despite the claims that he is "close" to reclaiming his top form, Woods was only slightly better than erratic Thursday. He hit only six of 14 fairways, which you can get away with at Augusta National where the second-cut of grass is barely more than a inch, and was on the green in regulation 12 of 18 times.
In fact, the result could have been worse and he did a god job of damage control. After bogeys on Nos. 10 and 11 put him at one-over par for the day, Woods saved par on No. 12 with a 20-footer and followed that with two consecutive birdies. "I'd rather be where Rory is at, but hey, it's a long way to go." Woods said with a smile when asked if he was happy with his position after the first day of play. McIlroy, the 21-year-old phenom from Northern Ireland, was seven years old when Woods won his first Masters in 1997.
"We have a long grind ahead of us," Woods said. "The temperature's supposed to warm up and I'm sure they will start making the pins a little more difficult as the week goes on. I'm only six back and we've got a lot of golf ahead of us."
While it is true Woods never goes low in the opening round of the Masters --- three of the four times he won here he opened with a 70, the fourth time with a 74 and last year's 68 was the only time he broke 70 in the first round -- these are not ordinary times. On three of the occasions in which he ended up taking home the green jacket, Woods was first in the field in greens in regulation and he was second the other time. In all four of those victorious efforts, Woods hit more than three-quarters of the greens in regulation, compared to the two-thirds effort he turned in Thursday.
For months now, since he got serious about the swing change at the PGA Championship in August, Woods has been telling us "it's a process" and that he is making progress with his game. If there is one venue in the world that creates the kind of positive vibes that could make it all fall together for Woods, it is Augusta National. The next step in that process will be Friday.
-- Ron Sirak