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Jthere were about 50,000 people at Augusta National for the start of the Masters: fans, media, members, stewards, caddies, cooks, cameramen and all the support staff, and Thursday morning almost every one of them was asking the same thing sort of a question. Many had come to the 1st tee at 11 a.m. to find the answer too. The fiercest had carved out a place in the front row that morning. Everyone craned their necks and stood on their tiptoes, jockeying to try and find a line of sight that would allow them to catch a flash of Tiger Woods in his shocking pink shirt.

Could Woods still do it? Even Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player were going back and forth after the opening ceremony. Nicklaus wasn’t sure. “Feeling competitive is different from feeling capable of winning,” he said after hitting the ceremonial tee shot. “I mean, I’m sure Tiger will be very competitive this week. But I don’t know if he can win or not. He hasn’t played competitively for a long time. It’s 508 days, to be exact.

The player disagreed. “There’s no reason not to. As long as he’s doing something that’s absolutely imperative, and that’s believing he can. There’s no doubt about that part, at least. Like Woods said, he wouldn’t be here otherwise. What was less clear was whether he was wrong, and everyone else, when he insisted his game was up to snuff. It became clear fairly quickly that he was not.

Woods covered all five holes at even par, although when his first putt was thrown the roar was so loud it led many to think he must have done something spectacular.

Since Woods’ name was not on any of the large whiteboards dotted around the course and Augusta’s strict rules meant no one had a phone handy to better tell them, the whisper went around that he had actually birdied the first. “He’s in great shape to make another one,” said a man on the 2nd after Woods hit his second shot down the slope in front of the green.

“I heard he couldn’t even swing after the accident,” someone said as Woods stood over his chip. “He was like a total beginner.” He was everything everyone was talking about. ‘I think his win here in 19 was the greatest comeback ever’ and ‘none of us had him to win back then either’ and ‘I think he’s going to run out of steam’ and “just making the cut here would be a win for him” and “I can’t wait to tell my mum I saw Tiger Woods”. His partners, Louis Oosthuizen and Joaquín Niemann, were not featured in the conversation. , even though the latter played brilliant golf.

Tiger Woods holds steady as flashes of magic suggest there’s more to come |  The Masters
Tiger Woods heads for the 14th. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Woods, on the other hand, was playing some good consistent stuff, a little less spectacular than the crowd would have liked. They were silent when he left a bad putt from the front of the green shorts on the 3rd, and again on the 4th when he missed with another putt from the fringe. It was as if he was going back there, in delicate conditions. The course had been softened by two days of torrential rain but the under-aerial drainage system was hard at work, sucking up the water table. Above our heads the wind was beginning to carry away the thick cold, the clouds and the drizzle. By the time the group arrived at 5, the sun had come out for the first time all week.

The crowd sighed for him there when a 15ft birdie putt caught the lip and flipped, and they roared on the 6th when he landed his first birdie (for real this time) after hitting his tee shot at 2 feet. His recovery in the 7th was even better. His drive fetched into a patch of pine straw on the right side, nestled between three tree trunks, but he whipped his second right to the front of the green, 30 yards out, then hit a superb chip at 2 feet. “Well, you can break my leg,” one man said. “And stick a metal rod in there too,” his friend added. Woods has always known how to get out of a difficult situation.

He dropped a shot on the next, where he made two consecutive errors after missing the green with his first chip and then hitting his second 5-footer par. It all started to get a little wild after that. There were a few misses, some brilliant digs and some jaw-dropping putts. He saved par after hitting a wild drive in the 9th but didn’t when he made the mistake again, worse this time, in the 14th after his foot almost appeared to slip halfway through. its momentum. That bogey cost him the shot he had just taken on the 13th, where he had a tap-in after his 23-foot eagle putt went short. The 15th was hairy too, as he leaped through the trees along the left side and dropped onto the green. And then he took out a 29-foot birdie putt on the par three 16th.

At the end of it all, he fought his way to the 18th and finished one under par. “Exactly where I want to be,” he said. He will compete well, Nicklaus was right about that. By Sunday, we’ll know if Player was too. A lot of people would say it was a win just to get here. But Woods has different ideas about what winning is.

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