Going into last year's Masters, nobody knew exactly what to expect from Tiger Woods. He'd been on the sidelines since The Hydrant Incident, and he could have won the tournament or missed the cut and nobody would've been surprised either way. (He ended up tied for fourth.)
This year, we know exactly what to expect from Woods: not much. He's been rocky at best, disastrous at worst, in his events in 2011. He hasn't won a tournament since before anyone knew what a Justin Bieber was.
Still, when you're talking Woods and Augusta, there's always hope, always the chance that Woods' spiritual and muscle memory will take over and guide him straight on a path to his fifth green jacket.
Conventional wisdom holds that anything over par for Woods is disastrous, while anything under 70 would be impressive, borderline exceptional. So what did he do? Confounded everyone by shooting a 1-under 71, a total that left him at the time six strokes off Rory McIlroy's lead.
[Related: Woods appears much more human these days]
No matter whether you're a Woods defender or a Woods detractor, Thursday's round gave you ammunition. Think Woods is done? The missed short putts, the two bogeys to open the back nine, the missed opportunities to shoot low on a perfect day will help you make your case. Think Woods is on the way back? The masterful approach shots on 15 and 17, the ability to shrug off the frustration of the rugged short game and the wayward driver, and the relative nearness of the field will help you keep hope alive.
Afterward, Woods seemed determinedly, even inexplicably, upbeat, saying he "hit beautiful putts all day." He did notice that they didn't go in, right?
Can Woods string together four consistent rounds in a row? He hasn't in more than a year. There's an old saying about how you can't win a golf tournament on Thursday, but you can lose one. Woods didn't do that, and for now, that's enough. One down, three to go. Does he still think he can win this?
"Absolutely," Woods said. "I'm only six back." The fact that he could even vocalize something like that speaks volumes about the state of Tiger Woods circa 2011.
- Tiger Woods