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AUGUSTA, Ga. — Tiger Woods watched his approach shot on the ninth hole at Augusta National, his 18th hole of the day, loft gently into the late afternoon, bounce, and settle nine feet from the cup.
It should have brought forth a torrent of cheers. Woods was, at the time, two strokes off the lead at the Masters and in position to putt for birdie. The waves of patrons that normally ring the ninth hole — or any hole where Woods plays, really — would have cracked the foundations of the clubhouse with their cheers.
Today? Today there was a faint, quick smattering of applause, there and then gone.
“That’s weird,” Woods told caddie Joe LaCava, and then they began walking toward the green.
Woods charged right to the top of the Masters leaderboard at Augusta on Thursday, but you wouldn’t have known it on the course. A gallery of exactly 28 people — not 2,800, not even 280, twenty-eight — followed Woods up and down the hills of Augusta National.
In normal times — that is, a non-COVID-delayed Masters, patrons in attendance — Tiger Woods can’t take three steps without summoning up ground-shaking cheers. Patrons gather 10 and 15 deep to watch him tee off, watch him tap in putts, or just watch him walk beneath the tall pines.
These are not normal times, and this is not a normal Masters. Where Tiger walks this year, he walks in silence. There are no patrons in attendance, meaning no cheers roaring up from the depths of Augusta National.
And there would have been. Lots.
Tiger Woods off to promising Masters start
Woods birdied the 13th, his fourth hole of the day, then followed that with birdies on 15 and 16. Combined, those scores should have set off cheers that echoed all the way to South Carolina. Instead? A couple claps. The soft hum of Augusta’s SubAir system, drying out the morning’s rain. And the chirps of a few birds who couldn’t care less.
Those birds — and a few family members, green jackets and media in attendance — saw a Tiger Woods who cast off all the doubts of the last few months, a Tiger Woods who looked … well, like the old Tiger Woods. Precise, in control, effective from every angle, Woods finished with a bogey-free 68, tied for the lowest first round he’s ever had at Augusta, and put him just three strokes off the lead held by Paul Casey.
Woods played in a grouping right behind Bryson DeChambeau, the behemoth whose stated mission this week was to take apart Augusta drive by 400-yard drive. Woods — who once could overpower the course in a similar way — relied instead on guile, local knowledge and a five-steps-ahead strategy, like a chess grandmaster anticipating every possible outcome.
It’s likely no defending champion has arrived in Augusta the next year with lower expectations since Jack Nicklaus back in 1987. Like Nicklaus, Woods won a stunning late-career Masters, keeping his head while all his challengers lost theirs at Rae’s Creek.
But Nicklaus never won another tournament on the PGA Tour after his iconic 1986 Masters, and Woods — until Thursday — appeared on the verge of cashing in his chips, too. He hadn’t placed in the top 10 of a tournament since January. In the four majors since that Augusta victory, he’s missed two cuts and finished T21 and T37 in the others.
Woods bouncing back?
Virtually every tournament this year, Woods’ game has seemed out of sync. When his driver was clicking, his putter let him down; when he could roll in long putts, he was often saving par or bogey.
“I haven't put all the pieces together at the same time, whether it's I've driven well or hit my irons poorly,” Woods said earlier this week. “Or I've put the ball striking together, and I haven't putted well. And then I've had it where I've putted well and I've hit it poorly.”
But Augusta has a way of rejuvenating Woods. He confessed to being emotional at his return to the course 19 months after his victory, the memories of the first major he could enjoy with his kids at the top of his mind.
Woods still enters every tournament expecting to win — or at least that’s what he says at every pre-tournament press conference — but when it’s Augusta, you can take him a little more seriously.
“Do I expect to contend? Yes, I do,” Woods said on Tuesday. “It can be done. This is a golf course in which having an understanding how to play and where to miss it and how to hit the shots around here, it helps.”
Can Woods ride Thursday’s momentum all the way through until Sunday? Put it this way: odds on Woods to win have dropped from +4000 prior to the tournament to as low as +1200; only five players are better odds to win.
Put it another way: it’s Tiger Woods. Would you bet against him when he’s rolling at Augusta?
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him with tips and story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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