Column: Tiger Woods is back at the Masters, but is he too far back?
He fought it. Holy Tiger, did he ever fight it.
He screamed at his ball. He pleaded with the marshals. He wailed to the sky.
“God dang it!’’ he cried.
“Oh no. No. NO!’’ he shouted.
For most of five hours Thursday, Tiger Woods futilely tried to grab his Masters comeback by the tail, and it was a striped mess. He splashed, he sliced, he hit nearly as many pine-straw piles as greens, and he kept begging for help.
“Bite, bite, bite!’’ he screeched.
”Go right … go way right … keep going right!” he wailed.
By the time he had rounded Amen Corner, Woods nearly had been brought to his knees when, suddenly — finally — somebody shouted back.
He sank a downhill birdie putt at No. 14. He curled in a dozen-foot birdie putt at No. 16. And then it appeared — loud enough to carry through every magnolia and azalea, shaking Augusta National down to its bent grass — a sound from his giant gallery that served both as welcome and warning.
The Tiger Roar returned.
Can the Tiger Charge be far behind?
Woods, playing in his first Masters in three years, resurrected his trademark cheer by going two under par for the last five holes to finish the first round at one-over 73, filling him with relief while staying within seven shots of leader Jordan Spieth.
“I could have easily let the round slip away from me but I got it back,’’ Woods said afterward. “And I’m right back in this tournament.’’
He had just walked about five miles up and down deceptively steep hills on a surgically fused back in only his seventh tournament since his comeback began last December, but he bounced to the post-round interview session outside the stately white clubhouse as if he was just getting started.
He smiled. He laughed. He wasn’t even breaking a sweat.
“It felt great to back out there again,’’ he said. “I only came up here the last couple of years just to have food. It’s nice that I came out to play and know that I had the golf course in front of me.’’
Although this broke his streak of 12 consecutive rounds of par or better, and although he didn’t birdie any of the par-five holes that he has played an amazing 142 under par in his career here, Woods finished strong enough to know that the Tiger Effect could kick in.
The leaders will look back and see him. Guys will start taking chances to erase him. It’s supposed to rain Saturday. Chaos could happen. He’s done this before. He will be waiting.
“I’m back in this championship,’’ Woods said. “There’s a lot of holes to be play … the weather is going to change … it will be fun for the next 54 holes.’’
The first 18 holes already have been a blast, with seemingly 90% of the gallery surrounding Woods, folks standing 30 deep in some places — a moving mass of cigar smoke and suntan lotion and hope.
He hasn’t won a tournament in five years. He hasn’t won a major in 10 years. He is coming back from depths both personal and physical. He was surrounded by what sounded like concerned parents, old friends, and true believers. This felt less like a round of golf and more like an old-fashioned revival meeting.
“Tiger, you got this!’’ shouted many.
“I’m signing up for spinal surgery!’’ shouted some.
Woods contrasted the brilliant spring morning by dressing in black, moving through the bright colors like some sort of superhero, cheered with every step, even given a loud ovation on his pre-match walk to the putting green.
“The crowds have been incredible,’’ he said, and when is the last time he noticed that sort of thing? “I got a standing ovation on the range. Coming up to the first tee, the people come out of the clubhouse and the putting green, they’re really into it.’’
It felt like an eternity from that 2010 tournament when he was greeted in the first tee box with boos and an airplane flying overhead while pulling a banner that read, “Tiger: Did You Mean Bootyism?’’
There is a chance Woods, now 42 and out of the golfing limelight for several years, was initially a bit overwhelmed by it all. He made bogeys on No. 4 and No. 5, then missed a couple of other makeable birdie putts on the front nine.
“I kept reminding myself … my job is to hit it on the fairway and move on from there,’’ he said.
All of this set up a potential meltdown on the back nine, highlighted by an 11th hole that turned into a mosh pit.
Woods hit his tee shot so far right, he repeatedly had to ask marshals to clear the gallery so he could aim for the green. When he finally hit his second shot, the gallery had not moved far enough, and the ball hit a chair in the middle of a crowd and stopped. Wood thought the shot would have gone to the green if the chair had not interfered, and screamed about it as he walked down the fairway.
“It was a great shot there,’’ he said later. “Unfortunately people ran out and it clipped them.’’
He thought he had saved par. Instead, he bogeyed, and moments later his tee shot on No. 13 rolled into the water, leading to another bogey, the low point of a round he would eventually save.
“I could have easily let it slip away,’’ he said. “And I fought hard to get it back in there.’’
It came back with that roar, which was surely still ringing in Spieth’s ears early Thursday evening.
Spieth may have a green jacket, and he may have that seven-stroke lead, but after his historic Masters collapse in 2016, it feels as if he is still a visitor here.
As was proven again Thursday, amid all of his wonderful fussing and fighting and surviving, Tiger Woods lives here.
Go beyond the scoreboard
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