Tiger Woods scrambles to a first-round 73 at Masters

Tiger Woods is literally all over the place in the first round at the Masters

Rising above the tightly packed mass of polo shirts and khaki shorts, emerging from the smell of fertilizer and sweat, a cry goes up for a champion lost.

"Where's Tiger?" shouts a fan standing along Augusta National's ninth fairway.

"Look, he's on the wrong fairway!" shouts another, and dozens of heads turn toward the odd sight of Tiger Woods glaring down from the middle of the first fairway when he's supposed to be playing the ninth hole.

"Duck!" shouts another.

Woods drives his second shot directly toward the crowd. They cover their sunscreen slathered heads and groan. Woods twists his body in frustration. The ball hits a tree and drops into the pine straw. Nothing is dented. Nothing except the memories.

"Is that really him?" says a red-faced man in plaid shorts, standing over the ball sitting in the wrong place at the worst time.

Yeah, that was really Woods on Thursday, slogging through his first competitive golf in more than two months like a man rummaging through his bottom drawer for a favorite old shirt.

Sometimes it appeared he found it. Moments later, upon closer examination and with great cries of frustration, it was obvious it was still lost. Sometimes he was the old Tiger, but mostly he was just an old Tiger, finishing with a one-over-par 73, tied for 41st place, nine strokes behind leader Jordan Spieth.

"I felt good," Woods claimed afterward, the sweat from the 88-degree day still dripping from his forehead. "I felt like I hit the ball well enough to shoot three under par."

He certainly didn't appear that hopeful on the course while careening and cursing his way through stifling humidity and startling mortality.

When he arrived here this week, he was a portrait of serenity and perspective. That lasted all of about 10 minutes, as he swung his club in anger on the first hole, slammed his club into the sand on the fourth, and hotly dropped his club on the sixth.

By the time he reached the 10th hole at one over he was in full throwback Tiger mode, loudly cursing himself with every bad shot.

"C'mon Tiger, [bleep bleep]!" he shouted after a wide approach shot.

"No, Tiger, dumb-ass!" he shouted after a tee shot into the trees.

He came up short on the 12th hole, scrambling for a bogey after his tee shot found Rae's Creek.

Huge crowds followed him, crowded him, cheered for him. But in the end, judging from all the stares and shrugs and one final politely clapped standing ovation after he finished the round, it was almost as if they felt sorry for him.

After missing last year's Masters with back problems, his first absence after 19 straight appearances, Woods brought back the buzz, but he didn't bring back the Tiger.

Remember when Woods was the charming phenom who owned this place? That spot was taken Thursday by 21-year-old Jordan Spieth, who calmly dominated with a 64, one shot over the course record.

"Really cool," Spieth said after the round. "I'd take three more of them."

Remember, also, when Woods was struggling against the perception that he was fading, and yet in 2013 he finished in a fourth-place tie here? That role was filled Thursday by Ernie Els, 45, who hasn't won a tournament since he captured the British Open three years ago, yet finished with a first-round 67.

"We kind of are running out of time a little bit here, so we are really trying to enjoy what we've got left out here," Els said.

Woods clearly doesn't think he's close to the end of chances to win here and, despite all evidence to the contrary, he and his broken-down body are going to fight to prove it.

"You know, I'm still in it," Woods claimed. "I'm only nine back. And we have a long way to go."

Indeed, back in 2005, Woods shot a first-round 74 and was buried deep on the leaderboard before roaring back to win the tournament. Then again, that was 10 years and many injuries ago.

Woods was especially proud Thursday of his short game, which has vastly improved from the mess it made of his game earlier this season. He had only one three-putt green while requiring just 28 overall putts, ranking him among the leaders.

"It's my strength again, that's why I've busted my butt, that's why I took time off, that's why I hit thousands and thousands of shots," he said.

However, it's now his tee-to-green game that is suffering. Seemingly jumping out of his shoes on several swings, he ranked 92nd out of 97 golfers Thursday by hitting 11 greens in regulation and averaging only 261 yards on his drives.

This is not a swing that can win this tournament, or, really, any major tournament. In attempting to come back in this showcase event after playing only 47 competitive holes this year, Woods reminded everyone how far he has to go.

Hopefully for him, that path is in a straighter line than the one he followed on that ninth hole Thursday.

"It's hot. The ball is flying. I hit the wrong shot," Woods said. "And then on top of that ... I hit the wrong shot again."

As some folks approached that strange pine-straw shot in an excited jog — a clear violation of Augusta National rules — a burly marshal intervened.

"Not so fast!" he shouted.

He was talking to those fans, but he could have been talking to Woods.

Twitter: @billplaschke

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