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At Masters, Tiger Woods shows flashes of greatness and signs of struggle

AUGUSTA, Ga. — The sun emerged through a narrow opening in a cloud-filled sky as Tiger Woods approached the first tee Thursday at the Masters Tournament. It cast the area in a sort of glow. But the searchlights were not necessary.

It was already as if all eyes on the Augusta National Golf Club course – along with millions of others watching around the world – had turned to Woods, who was making an unlikely return to elite golf 408 days after a horrific, potentially fatal car accident involving a single vehicle.

About five hours later, Woods rode up the 18th fairway to resounding applause, not only acknowledgment of his successful return to competitive golf, but also acknowledgment that he had done so to a more than commendable standard.

In his first professional tour in 17 months, Woods shot a gutsy, gutsy 71 with three birdies and two bogeys. Granted, he looked rusty, and many of his usually reliable iron shots didn’t reach the easily accessible greens. He was erratic off the tee with his driver and played the Augusta National par 3s in two under and the par 5s in par, the reverse of his usual pattern.

But Woods’ putting, still his greatest strength, saved him on several occasions. He left the 18th hole with a much wider smile than the slightly shy one he had briefly displayed on the first hole.

While Woods seemed a bit out of practice at times, he seemed sturdy enough to withstand the strain of climbing up and down Augusta National’s many hills. There were, however, signs he was making concessions on his surgically reconstructed right leg and foot, which now have a rod, plates and screws holding them together. He rarely crouched, for example, behind his golf ball as he once did to read putts near the level of the playing surface.

On the ninth hole, as Woods came off the tee, he visibly winced as his right leg seemed to land awkwardly. He winced at each of the next steps. While Woods regained a more consistent stride afterwards, he limped more and more as the day progressed.

More than 90 minutes earlier, Woods had walked confidently off the first tee, where he was greeted with enthusiastic cheers. After tilting his cap, he hammered a drive to the first fairway. But his approach shot, like many others he hit Thursday, flopped. After a mediocre throw on the green, Woods faced the kind of putt no golfer appreciates on the first green – a slippery, breaking 12-footer. But he sank it for par, and the gallery around the green let out a roar.

He wasn’t as sharp on the par-5 second hole, which was usually a spot where Woods could almost count on a birdie, if not an eagle. But an inferior tee shot led to a bailout, an unexceptional chip and a two-putt par. Three more pairs followed as Woods settled into a comfortable rhythm. Then, hitting from an elevated tee on the par-3 sixth hole, Woods artfully propelled his tee shot high into the air. A few long seconds later he fell onto the green and quickly stopped about 18 inches from the hole for an easy birdie.

Sitting at one under par, fans around Augusta National Field, where giant white scoreboards are ubiquitous, watched as Woods’ name popped up near the top of the leaderboard. More roars.

As he left the sixth green, Woods shrugged playfully and covered his mouth to – barely – hide a smile. Perhaps vying for the Masters lead just an hour after returning to the tournament seemed a bit far-fetched, even for him.

But, from the seventh hole, recurring errors forced Woods to scramble to keep up with the leaders. For five holes, from the seventh to the 11th, he wasted quality tee shots when he missed the green with his approach shots.

Woods saved the par with a nervous putt on the seventh green, but he didn’t come close to sinking a par 8-foot putt on the par-5 eighth hole and walked out with his first bogey of the round.

On the ninth hole he fired his drive into the trees to the left of the fairway before leaving another short approach, although he again saved par with a clutch putt. He did the same when his approach to the 11th green went astray. He made an uneventful par two-putt on the tiny and treacherous 12th hole, then birdied the par-5 13th hole after reaching the green in two strokes. This moved him to one under par for the round.

Another wandering drive through the woods on the next hole brought out the old-time Tiger as he ferociously swung the ball over mammoth pines on his way to the green. His putter, however, couldn’t save him, and he fell back to par for the day with a bogey.

Another missed fairway led to a routine par at the par-5 15th hole, but Woods, as he has so often done in the past, saved a little drama for the par-3 16th hole as he sank a twisted, uphill putt from 23 feet. for the bird. This streak also sparked Woods’ first animated pump of the day.

A round in the 60s wasn’t out of the question, but Woods only managed a routine par on the 17th hole. At the closing hole, another twisted drive momentarily derailed him. But the round ended with a bang as he recovered to sink an 8-foot putt and secure a sub-par round.

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