Column: Tiger delivers again on the biggest stage in golf

AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — The masses spread out across Augusta National believed, roaring gleefully from the time Tiger Woods stepped on the first tee until he trudged up the 18th hole, using his wedge to help brace his steps along the way. At a time sports heroes are in short supply, theirs was on full display and easy to spot in a bright pink shirt, as if anyone needed any help.

More importantly, Woods himself believed. And on a day many thought they would never see, he probably needed it even more.

The 1-under 71 Woods shot Thursday in the first round of the Masters was a long grind that barely got him on the leaderboard. The odds of him being in contention on Sunday afternoon are still very long.

But for one day, at least, the leg shattered 14 months ago in a car accident held up in one of the toughest walks in golf. For one day, at least, Woods proved he could do the near impossible and compete again on the biggest stage in golf.

The swing looked great, and the limp wasn’t bad. If it wasn’t exactly the Woods of old, it was a pretty good approximation.

That was good enough for the fans. And, judging from the look on Woods’ face afterward, it was more than good enough for him.

“It’s not easy,” Woods said. “People have no idea how hard it’s been.”

If they wanted an idea, they might have looked at pictures of his leg after the accident, which Woods said he has shown to friends. If they wanted an idea, he’s happy to talk about the endless hours of rehabilitation and practice that made his storybook comeback possible.

The greatest player of his time still believes he can win. Even better, he believes he can do it this week, on a bad leg at the age of 46.

And after all he’s been through, who’s going to tell him he can’t?

“I can swing a golf club,” Woods said. “The walking’s not easy, and it’s difficult. As I said with all the hard work, my leg, it’s going to be difficult for the rest of my life. That’s just the way it is, but I’m able to do it.”

A return to competitive play after he crashed his SUV in California always seemed improbable for Woods, who many figured would be happy just to walk again and play golf with his young son. That he could do it on a hilly Augusta National course that is a hard walk for even the younger players seemed nearly impossible.

Woods nearly aced the par-3 sixth hole, and the roar was deafening around the course when he made a 30-footer to birdie the 16th. His opening round was a victory lap all by itself, and when he finished by making an 8-footer for par on the final hole the crowd rose as one to give him a standing ovation.

Afterward, he was sore and he was tired. But the adrenaline was still flowing, and he sounded like he couldn’t wait for more.

“I’m going to be sore, yes. That’s just the way it is,” he said. “But the training cycles that we’ve had to make sure that I have the stamina to keep going — and this is only one round. We’ve got three more to go. There’s a long way to go and a lot of shots to be played.”

Just where Woods finishes after all those shots are played probably won’t be remembered as much as the fact he managed to play at all. No one really expects him to win a sixth green jacket this week, though it would seem foolish to continue to sell him short.

Even his fellow pros can’t take their eyes off him.

“I actually found myself a couple of times today, because we were waiting so much, just watching. I almost felt like a patron out there at some points today,” said Cameron Smith, who played in the group ahead of Woods. “You can’t not watch him; he’s unreal.”

At times it seemed like everyone at Augusta National was watching, though for most it was just a glimpse of a pink shirt through the fans crowding the fairways and greens. Everywhere around the golf course fans were asking each other what Woods was doing and every time there was a big roar they wondered if it was for him.

Woods felt the love and tried to give them something back.

“I mean, the place was electric,” he said. “I hadn’t played like this since ’19 when I won because in ’20 we had COVID and we had no one here, and I didn’t play last year. So to have the patrons fully out and to have that type of energy out there was awesome to feel.”

Awesome for Woods, and awesome for anyone watching. Thursday was all about Woods, and he wasn’t about to disappoint himself or his millions of fans.

Yes, it was for only one day.

But what a day it was.