Tiger on the prowl at Augusta

Tiger on the prowl at Augusta

AUGUSTA • At ease as he played his 87th round at the Masters, Tiger Woods stalked Augusta National on Thursday with the aplomb of someone sauntering through his living room in search of his favourite recliner, foot stool and coaster, for the cool drink in his hand.

Shot by shot, the path was so familiar he could have negotiated it in the dark.

Because he has won the tournament five times and has been a Masters fixture for the past 25 years, it is possible he has played the golf course in those conditions. And probably still broken par.

Woods, the reigning champion, was not the leader after Thursday’s first round, which was delayed by a nearly three-hour thunderstorm that left dozens of golfers unable to finish their sessions.

With a four-under 68, the 15-time Major champion was tied for 10th and quietly three strokes behind the co-leaders, Paul Casey, Dustin Johnson and Dylan Frittelli.

But his commanding round was the loudest statement of the day. It has been an up-and-down year for Woods, but on this day he was composed and virtually never out of position on the devilish Augusta National layout. It almost seemed that he was on cruise control, as if he could coast to a 68.

“I did everything well today,” the 44-year-old, who is not prone to self-congratulation, said after his round. “I drove it well, hit my irons well and putted well. There’s really nothing, looking back on it, that I could have done a little bit better.”

The statistics speak for themselves. He tied his best-ever opening round at the Masters, recorded his first bogey-free opening round in any Major since the 2009 PGA Championship, and it was also his first bogey-free round in a Major in his past 106 Major rounds.

Every other seasoned contender in the field knows the Masters history when Woods has a good opening round. It is not true that he has won every time he has shot 70 or better in the first round. It has, however, happened four times.

He has seriously contended on the three other occasions when he has been two strokes or more under par after the first day, finishing fourth twice and sixth once.

“Understanding how to play this golf course is just a big part of playing well here,” he said. “It’s so familiar.”

His steady play was a stark contrast to most everything else happening during the first Masters round ever contested in November. Nothing else seemed usual, with the typically treacherous greens wet and slow, the spring floral colours missing and the galleries absent because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“There were a lot of differences today,” he said. “There was a drone flying over the green. You don’t hear drones here. There were no patrons, no roars. A lot of firsts today. That’s kind of the way this entire year has been.”

Many players had the same sense of being in a recognisable, yet altered, place. Xander Schauffele shot a brilliant 67, but he seemed unsure about what to make of his round.

“A lot of it felt wrong, in all honesty,” he said. “The greens are really soft, so there isn’t a whole lot to be scared of. It was really strange. You would play less break on putts and hit it harder, which is something you never do here.”

Casey, who has had five top-10 finishes in 13 previous Masters, eagled the par-five second hole with an approach shot that he expected to end up over the green.

“I hit a six-iron to a left-hand pin on No. 2, and you can’t hit that shot in April,” Casey said. “Today, it just pitched and stopped instantly.

“In April, it would have one-hopped over into the patrons. I probably make five, not three.”

NYTIMES, REUTERS

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