AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — Tiger Woods playing the Masters again, his shirt as pink as the azaleas at Augusta National, would have been enough reason to celebrate Thursday.
It felt that way to him, too.
Woods twirled his club after good shots, and there were enough. He pumped his fist after his longest birdie putt. And then normalcy gave way to reality when he used his wedge as a walking stick for his once-battered and now weary legs for a final climb toward the 18th green.
Another par save for a 1-under 71, four shots behind Sungjae Im.
But this wasn't just about a score. Woods was competing in a major, the first time in 508 days since a car crash some 14 month ago that shattered his right leg. That much was clear when asked if simply being able to play felt like a victory. His answer: “Yes.”
“If you would have seen how my leg looked to where it's at now, the pictures — some of the guys know; they've seen the pictures — to see where I've been, to get from there to here, it was no easy task," Woods said.
It doesn't figure to get any easier the rest of the way.
Still to come is Friday, the first time he will have walked 18 holes at Augusta National on consecutive days since the accident with what he described as “lots of ice" in between.
Ahead of him are a collection of players who have won majors, who have won at Augusta, and who have spent the last year honing their games instead of figuring out how to get from a hospital bed to finding joy in the simple pleasure of walking.
Im, the 24-year-old South Korean known for rarely missing the center of the club face, ran off three straight birdies at the start, recovered from a pair of bogeys with a 12-foot eagle putt on the 13th and added a late birdie for a 5-under 67.
He was one shot ahead of Cameron Smith, playing for the first time since winning The Players Championship a month ago. The Aussie with the mullet had the most dynamic round of the day with his eight birdies, all between a double bogey at the start and the finish.
“To be honest, those couple of double bogeys really didn’t have too bad a shot in them. It’s not like I was scratching it out of the trees,” Smith said. “Just misjudged the wind on both wedges. Just left myself in a bit of a tough spot. Other than that, it was just really solid.”
Im's 67 was the highest score to lead after 18 holes at the Masters since 2014, and that was to be expected. Even with 2 inches of rain that softened the course, the front that cleared out the clouds brought enough wind to jangle the nerves at every turn.
Dustin Johnson, who held off Im and Smith when he won the Masters in November 2020, was 4 under through 10 holes and poised to present a daunting target with the scoring holes ahead of him. He had to settle for pars, dropped a shot late and was in the large group at 69.
Also at 69 were former Masters champion Danny Willett, world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler and Joaquin Niemann, who holed out for eagle on No. 9 and still didn't get the biggest roar of the round. He was playing with Woods, who heard them all day.
The crowd was so large that Woods could barely be seen over so many heads as he walked from the clubhouse to the putting green and then to the first tee, big cheers at each station, all the way down to Amen Corner until the end.
“Probably at the beginning I noticed that there was a lot of people, but then I was trying to talk to my caddie, and I couldn’t hear anything that he was saying,” Niemann said.
Overlooked in Woods playing again was the return of the spectators, and it was a beautiful and roaring marriage. There were pockets of cheers from around Augusta National, and endless cheers for Woods.
He missed that. They missed him. And he didn't waste time giving them reason for hope by making a 10-foot par putt on the first hole.
“The place was electric,” Woods said. “I hadn’t played like this since ’19 when I won because in ’20 we had COVID and we had no one here, and I didn’t play last year. So to have the patrons fully out and to have that type of energy out there was awesome to feel.”
He couldn't feel the same about his legs. He said they were sore, which he expected, but he could compete over five hours on soft turf and so many undulations.
He came within a few feet of an ace on the par-3 sixth. He made a 30-foot birdie on the par-3 16th, and his other on an approach that hugged the top of the green at the par-5 13th for a simple two-putt. His big regret was a pitch that came up woefully short on the par-5 eighth, followed by a chip that was too strong and a poor putt.
He dropped another shot from a 4-iron chip on the 14th that ran 8 feet by.
It wasn't his best. But after going that long without serious competition, he had few complaints.
“I’m going to be sore, yes. That’s just the way it is,” he said. “And this is only one round. We’ve got three more to go. There’s a long way to go and a lot of shots to be played.”
But it was a start, and that felt like a win. And he was among 17 players from the 90-man field who broke par, and that was big.
“I was able to finish up in the red,” Woods said. “I'm right where I need to be.”
The thousands of spectators who stood a dozen deep in some spots, who filled every inch of grass around Amen Corner, couldn't have agreed more.