Tiger Woods teed off at Augusta National for the first time in three years on Thursday, setting off in search of his 15th major title in a Masters that promises to be a classic.
The 42-year-old, who calls himself a walking miracle less than 12 months after spinal fusion surgery, has astonished in his latest return from injury, a pair of top-five finishes on the PGA Tour fueling expectations that he can resume his pursuit of Jack Nickluas’s all-time record of 18 major wins.
With an expectant gallery looking on, Woods hit his tee shot at the par-four first left into the pine straw but emerged with an opening par.
In sunny, chilly morning weather, 2000 Masters champion Vijay Singh of Fiji set the early pace with three birdies in his first four holes.
Six-time champion Nicklaus and three-time winner Gary Player officially launched the proceedings with the ceremonial opening shots.
Austin Cook, playing in the first group, nabbed the first birdie of the tournament at the first, but promptly gave that shot back at the second.
Woods, making his first major start since missing the cut at the 2015 PGA Championship, teed off alongside Australian Marc Leishman and England’s Tommy Fleetwood.
Spain’s Sergio Garcia, who ended nearly two decades of major futility with his victory here last year, played in the group behind Woods and opened with a par in his bid to join Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Woods as the only players to successfully defend the Masters crown.
While Tiger has drawn the lion’s share of attention this week, the field is packed with an array of in-form players.
Phil Mickelson, 47, has his sights set on a fourth green jacket after notching his first win in five years at the WGC Mexico Championship.
Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy seeks to complete a career Grand Slam after a sensational final-round 64 carried him to victory at Bay Hill.
Two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson has won twice since Valentine’s Day and world number two Justin Thomas, the reigning US PGA Tour Player of the Year, would overtake Dustin Johnson atop the world rankings with a victory.
Johnson, who has reigned at number one for more than a year, has catching up to do at the Masters after a pre-tournament slip on the stairs forced him out of last year’s tournament at the 11th hour.
Just One Round One In 60s
But Woods still captures the imagination like no other player.
He has produced plenty of spectacular moments at the Masters — starting with his record-setting first major triumph at the age of 21 in 1997.
But he has shot in the 60s in the first round only once in 20 prior Masters appearances.
That 68 in 2010 — when he was returning to action after a humiliating sex scandal that wrecked his marriage and sent sponsors fleeing — proved the springboard only to a tie for fourth.
Woods has said since January that the early stages of his comeback were all pointed at the Masters.
Now that he’s here, his hope amid the hype is that at least one facet of his game is good enough to carry him to a win.
“All those years that I’ve won, one part of my game has certainly stood out. Whether it’s driving the ball like I did in ’97 and putting it a couple years where I really putted well or hitting my irons and hitting a lot of greens,” he said. “There’s got to be some sort of certain part of my game that’s got to be on, and hopefully this will be one of those weeks.”
© Agence France-Presse with additional edits from Richard Barrett.