Column: Briefly, Tiger was back atop the Masters leaderboard
AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — The name on top of the leaderboard on a steamy Thursday afternoon was as familiar as the shouts of encouragement that followed Tiger Woods everywhere he went in the opening round of the Masters.
For a little while, at least, it was beginning to look like old times again at Augusta National.
The booming drives seemed the same on a day when the ball was carrying far for everyone. The putting stroke was good enough, especially on the 14th hole when Woods drained a putt from across the hilly green for an improbable birdie.
And perhaps the most important thing? The confidence seemed back, even if Woods didn't quite get his history right after a 2 under 70 left him four shots off the lead after the first round.
"It's not a bad start," Woods said. "I've only shot like under 70 one time (in the opening round), but I've shot 70 the four times that I have won here."
It was three, actually, since Woods opened with a 74 in 2005 before roaring back to win in a playoff with Chris DiMarco. Hard to imagine then, but that's the last time anyone was sizing Woods up for a green jacket.
Woods didn't get much else wrong on a day where birdies were plentiful but swirling winds kept scores from trending too low. It was the kind of day that called for course management, and Woods knows more than most in the field how to take on Augusta National after playing 21 times previously in the Masters.
About the only thing Woods couldn't manage was the traffic jam coming off the 18th green, where he crossed ahead of Phil Mickelson as he was heading toward the 10th tee amid a noisy mass of sweltering Masters patrons.
If the start was decent, it wasn't great. Woods wasn't even the best player this day in his threesome, as Jon Rahm finished off a 69 to edge him by a shot.
But decent in the opening round was good enough to win three of his green jackets. And Woods seemed to like the symmetry of this 70, even if it came because he bogeyed the 17th hole after hitting his tee shot into the trees.
"We still have a long way to go," he said. "Tee off late tomorrow and the wind's supposed to be up, so I have my work cut out for me the rest of the week and so does everyone else."
Woods was actually tied for the lead for the better part of an hour, the first time since the final round in 2007 that his name has been atop the gleaming white Masters leaderboards. His bogey on 17 dropped him back, but at 2 under he's in the middle of a large pack of players chasing the leaders.
Whether he can stay there depends as much on his mindset as his putting stroke. Woods proved he can win again after roaring to victory in the Tour Championship last year, but winning the majors is always more difficult. His track record since his win at the U.S. Open 11 years ago is not a good one.
He's 43 now, an age where the 5-footers that were once automatic don't always go in. Indeed, Woods missed makeable putts on Nos. 5 and 6 before steadying himself on the greens the rest of the way.
And if he needed any inspiration, he seemed to get it in Bernhard Langer shooting a 1-under 71 at the age of 61.
"There's a 61-year-old up there on that board, he knows how to play this golf course," Woods said. "So it's a matter of missing the golf ball in the correct spots and picking your spots and when to be aggressive."
Tiger fans can take hope in Woods' declaration that his body feels good and so does his game. But he's playing against guys little more than half his age who don't have bad backs.
How far Woods has come in just a short time became apparent when Woods revealed on the eve of the tournament that he took a nerve block just to be able to get to the champion's dinner here in 2017.
"I ended up going to England that night, saw a specialist there, (and) they recommended unfortunately for me the only way to get rid of the pain I was living in was to have the spinal fusion surgery," Woods said at the Golf Writers of America annual dinner.
The surgery was successful and now he's in the midst of a remarkable comeback that even has his detractors beginning to cheer for him. He's also shown a more human side that makes him even more endearing to golf fans.
The scene at the Tour Championship showed that as he was enveloped by fans swarming onto the 18th hole to witness a slice of history.
Who knows, come Sunday things could really look familiar if Tigermania breaks out once again.