It’s impossible to overstate the importance of the first tee shot at the Masters on Tiger Woods’ psyche.
“I promise you he has been thinking about that tee shot since he got to Augusta National,” said John Cook, a close friend of Woods’.
“He has had trouble with that first tee shot.”
Last year, Woods hit a snap hook off that tee – then another on the second hole – and his body language said his Masters campaign was over. He never recovered, limping home in a tie for 40th, his worst ever finish at the year’s first major.
So despite the three wins this season and the fact that he’s regained the No. 1 world ranking and came to Augusta as the favorite, there was apprehension on an overcast Thursday as Woods stepped to the tee.
With girlfriend Lindsey Vonn looking on – a soft brace on her surgically repaired right knee made walking difficult, but she was determined to watch her man – Woods selected not his driver on the long, uphill par 4, but a new 3 wood that he’d just put in his bag.
The gamble paid off as he smoked one down the middle, clipping Luke Donald’s driver by at least 25 yards. Indeed, Scott Piercy, one of the longer hitters in the game, was perhaps only 20 yards beyond Woods, and he’d hit a high draw.
From there, Woods hit a short iron about 15 feet beneath the hole.
As he stalked the putt, it seemed like he was picking up from where he’d left off at Torrey Pines and Doral and, lastly, at Bay Hill.
Woods putted like the Tiger of old in those three victories – making an astonishing 35 putts of 8 feet or longer in the last two wins – which was critical given that putting is what has kept him from winning at Augusta since 2005.
“I was there ball-striking-wise a few years through that stretch where I think I hit it pretty well. Hit a lot of greens, but just didn’t make enough putts,” Woods said earlier this week.
“I was there on Sundays with a chance, and unfortunately just didn’t get it done. But as we all know, you have to putt well here. You have to make a lot of putts.”
A birdie to start the 2013 Masters, then, would’ve gone a long way.
Instead, Woods hit a tentative putt that never had a chance of falling.
It seemed to deflate him, as did the awful second shot into the second that left him to scramble for a par 5 on what is really a birdie hole.
He needed to recover again on the third after bouncing his tee shot into a fan, causing him to spill his beer. And so it went.
By the sixth, though, Woods stopped playing beer pong and started playing golf, stiffing an iron onto the tiny tier on the back right of that green.
He made the 6-footer for birdie and added another on the eighth. Two more birdies on the straightforward par 5s on the back and he’d have been happy given his history of slow starts here. (Woods has only once shot in the 60s in the first round, in 2010, his first tournament back from the scandal.)
But after a deft lag putt for birdie on the 13th, he three-putted the next and jammed a birdie try on 15 from 6 feet, missing the hole altogether.
He finished with a 2-under-par round of 70, which he’d later call “a good day, a solid day.”
But it sounded like he was saying it through gritted teeth.
As if he were trying to convince himself – but not entirely succeeding – that a 70 was just what he was looking for to try to end a nearly five-year majors drought.
Certainly, it wasn’t bad – in three of his four Masters wins he’s started with 70 – but he knows he turned a 68 into a 70.
For a man with so much riding on this result, every shot counts, especially on a day like this, when Augusta National was as inviting as Southern comfort food.
A third of the field finished in red numbers.
Unheralded young Australian Marc Leishman and the Spanish roller-coaster that is Sergio Garcia went deepest, both firing 6-under 66s.
Garcia is not exactly known for his prowess on the greens. Yet Woods was left to bemoan the state of the putting surfaces.
“I thought that the greens were a little bit tough,” he said.
It’s Augusta National, Tiger, they’re supposed to be tough.
Except he was not complaining that they were too fast, but too slow.
“They just didn’t have the sheen to them; they didn’t have the roll-out,” he said.
Woods took 30 putts on Thursday, which, compared with what he did with the flatstick at Doral and Bay Hill, was bad.
But he wasn’t the only one complaining about the greens.
Phil Mickelson shot 71 – he’d been at 2 over through 11 holes – and vowed to slay the course Friday.
“I don’t get it,” he said.
“They’re soft and they are slow. And consequently we have 45 people at par or better.
“That means that I’ve got to change my whole mindset and just get after these pins, because the ball’s not running like it used to, and I’m giving this course way too much respect because of my past knowledge than the way I should be playing it today.”
Mickelson spoke like a man who expected to shoot something in the mid-60s on Friday.
He won’t be the only one if overnight rains soften the course even more.