Does Tiger know he's six shots back?

Does Tiger know he's six shots back?

Published Apr. 7, 2011 1:00 a.m. ET

Tiger Woods was six shots off the lead when he finished his opening round at the Masters, yet declared himself “very pleased”.

Very pleased?

Very pleased with a one-under par 71 on a gorgeous spring Thursday and on a course set up to bring the birdie roars back to the Masters?

Rory McIlroy and Alvaro Quiros both took advantage of the benign conditions to shoot 65s.


Yet Woods seemed convinced that this Masters would somehow turn into golf’s version of Aesop’s “Tortoise and the Hare” fable.

“Long way to go,” he said, “We have a long grind ahead of us.”

“I’m sure they will start making the pins a little more difficult as the week goes on.”

Even if the green coats who run Augusta National decide to rein in the scoring, is it a given that everyone ahead of him will stumble?

YE Yang shot 67 in the first round, as did another South Korean, KJ Choi. They’re both tough SOBs, as Woods — who coughed up the 54-hole lead of a major for the first time in his career to Yang at the 2009 PGA Championship — knows only too well.

Matt Kuchar shot 68 and one of these days he’s going to win a major. Sergio Garcia shot 69 and is smiling again.

And if everyone doesn’t come back to him, that means Woods needs to shoot his own 66 or 67 or risk losing touch.

With everything he has on the line this week, his contentedness with his start seemed a tad delusional, especially when contrasted with Phil Mickelson’s exasperation after he opened with a 70 — one shot better than Woods.

“It’s just OK,” an obviously annoyed Mickelson said.

“I mean, it’s . . . OK. I didn’t shoot myself out of it but I didn’t make up ground on the field the way I wanted to, so I’m going to have to go do it tomorrow.”

Maybe it’s yet another sign that Woods and Mickelson have traded places — and not just in the world rankings — when it comes to Augusta National.

It’s occurred to me that Woods will be back when he again can turn 74s into 69s, like he used to, instead of complaining about how his scores should’ve been better.

“Realistically, the round probably should have been 68, 69,” he said Thursday.

Hang around the PGA Tour long enough and you’ll hear hundreds of those stories.

You just don’t expect them from Tiger Woods.

“I hit a lot of beautiful putts,” he said. “And they were just skirting the edge.”

Don’t the really beautiful putts fall into the hole?

And that’s an unpalatable truth for Woods: it’s been a long, long time since the putts have dropped for him.

Indeed, on Thursday it was Lefty doing what Woods built his legend on: saving his bacon.

“Only Phil Mickelson could’ve scored under par from where he put the ball off the tee today,” Colin Montgomerie said.

The defending champion hit only four fairways, worst in the field.

The rest of the time he needed a GPS to find the green. Yet he only made a single bogey for the day, on the last hole when his luck ran out and a seven footer for par slid by the left edge of the hole.

Mickelson’s tee shot on 13 was only the most egregious example of his waywardness and subsequent powers of recovery.

He over-sliced his tee ball on the dog-leg left par-five and it bounced around in the trees before landing deep in the azalea bushes to the left of Rae‘s Creek.

Not only did he find his ball — no small feat — but he had a swing. He punched back into the fairway and almost made birdie.

On the 14th, Mickelson upstaged even himself, punching an iron through the left-side trees which magically not only found the putting surface but left him 15 feet from the hole. He converted the putt for birdie.

Mickelson immediately went to the driving range as dusk fell to try to straighten his crooked driver.

Woods, meanwhile, left reassuring himself that "I’m only six back."

In truth, maybe neither of them will have what it takes to win the 75th Masters.

Maybe the generational change that’s been brewing in golf for some time will finally arrive on Sunday.

Maybe the young, powerful Quiros will just blast his way into immortality or maybe it’ll be McIlroy, who’s a savant with a golf club in his hand and putts without fear.

McIlroy is just 21 — the same age Woods was when he carved his legend here in 1997 — but he’s got scar tissue when it comes to first-round majors leads.

He tied the majors scoring record with an opening 63 at St. Andrews last year. He followed that with an 80. There were extenuating circumstances — the winds were howling — but here’s an unavoidable truth in golf: If you want to win a major, you salvage something out of a bad round, not turn in an 80.

McIlroy spoke on Thursday like a young man who learned an invaluable lesson at St. Andrews.

“It’s possible that I can go out and shoot another 65, but I know that it’s also very likely that I’m not going to do that,” he said.

“So if I do find myself in a bit of trouble, I’m going to have to stick in there, grind it out, and that’s something that I feel as if I learned (from) St. Andrews.

“I feel like shooting a score like that, you should never really make that mistake again.”

If he really did learn that lesson, then Tiger Woods can shoot all the 71s he wants and it won’t matter.