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'He's an inspiration to us all': Tiger Woods has magical moments in Masters return | Opinion

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Something was in the air, a murmur at first, a rush of sound far away from the first tee, growing louder by the second. Hundreds of heads turned. The galleries were as large as they could ever be at Augusta National, packed 20-25 deep, waiting for one person, and that person, Tiger Woods, was on his way, magically enough, from the practice green to the tee box of the 2022 Masters.

Less than 14 months earlier, he crashed his SUV and thought he might lose his right leg or never walk again. Now, here he was, striding confidently, albeit with a persistent limp, in front of a massive Thursday morning audience to begin his first official round of golf since he last teed off here in the November 2020 Masters.

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Tiger Woods reacts to his putt on the 15th green during the first round of the Masters.
Tiger Woods reacts to his putt on the 15th green during the first round of the Masters.

One of the most stunning sports stories ever told was unfolding before the hundreds gathered by the first tee. The 46-year-old Woods, who a year ago was in the midst of spending three consecutive months in a hospital bed, was on his way to a magnificent opening round at the Masters, breaking par, finishing at one-under 71, tied for 10th after the first round, four strokes behind leader Sungjae Im.

There was only one conclusion to draw from this remarkable sports moment: Tiger is just so good at this and cares so much about it that he can do it, and do it very well, on a rebuilt right leg.

“To finish in the red today after as long a layoff as I’ve had and not being in competitive golf,” Woods said afterward, “to play this golf course and to do what I did today, I’m only three back (the lead was 4-under at the time) and I’m right where I need to be."

While Tiger was focusing on the leaderboard, as always, and of course wants to win, as always, he did acknowledge that what he did here Thursday was the equivalent of a victory.

“Yes,” he said, before alluding to before and after photos of his shattered right leg. “To get from there to here, it was no easy task.”

Dozens of other golfers were on the course as Tiger was, but in some ways, they barely existed. “You can’t help but watch him, he’s an inspiration to us all,” said Cameron Smith, one stroke off the lead at 4-under par, playing right in front of Woods.

As the clouds that brought ferocious storms finally cleared, revealing nothing but metaphorical blue skies, Woods teed off to thunderous applause, but his first drive was not a prize winner. The sound was not pure but thin, and the result was mediocre, short of the bunker on the right side of the fairway. But just as he was going to do all day, Woods persevered. He hit his approach just short of the green and made a 10-foot putt to save par.

He was on his way. He parred the first five holes before a scintillating shot into the par-three sixth hole, leaving him just two feet for birdie. He was one-under, and on the leaderboard. How much greater could this story get?

But golf giveth and golf taketh away. There was an ugly bogey on the par-5 eighth hole, a birdie on the next par-5, the 13th, then another bogey on 14 after a drive into the trees. But then, pure Tiger magic on No. 16 as Woods’ tee shot dropped beautifully onto the green, 29 feet from the hole. Of course Tiger made the putt to go back to one-under par, and that’s where he stayed.

For much of the day Thursday, Woods wasn’t in the lead, but he was on the leaderboard. He later said he was running on “adrenaline,” getting into his “own little world.” He offered few smiles; this clearly was a grind. His tee shots were not as long as those of his playing partners and he missed some fairways and greens. But he fought. Did he ever fight, and when his 10-foot putt fell into the cup for a closing par save on No. 18, he sighed deeply. He had done it, and he was done for the day.

“People have no idea how hard it’s been,” he said. “The walking is difficult. With all the hardware in my leg, it’s going to be difficult for the rest of my life. I’m able to do it and I’m very lucky to have this opportunity.”

Woods’ injuries, comeback and age have given him a perspective he never had before. He is willing to talk about things he once never would have mentioned, human frailties he glossed over for decades. So when he was asked what he was going to do before Friday afternoon’s second round, he answered like a middle-aged man who had just walked 18 holes up and down hills on a leg full of pins and screws and plates.

“Lots of ice.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Masters Tournament: Tiger Woods perseveres at Augusta with opening 71