Column: Tiger delivers again on golf’s biggest stage

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AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — The masses spread across Augusta National believed, roaring happily from the moment Tiger Woods stepped on the first tee until he scaled the 18th hole, using his corner to help to prepare his steps along the way. In a time when sports heroes are rare, theirs were on full display and easy to spot in a hot pink shirt, as if someone needed help.

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

Woods’ under-71 shot Thursday in the first round of the Masters was a long grind that barely placed him in the standings. The chances that he will be in contention on Sunday afternoon are still very long.

But for at least one day, the leg was broken 14 months ago in a car accident on one of golf’s toughest drives. For one day, at least, Woods proved he could do the impossible and compete on golf’s biggest stage again.

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

That was enough for the fans. And, judging by the look on Woods’ face afterwards, that was more than enough for him.

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

If they wanted an idea, they might have looked at photos of his leg after the accident, which Woods said he showed 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. Better yet, he believes he can do it this week, on a bad leg at 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 walk is not easy, and it is difficult. Like I said with all the hard work, my leg, it’s gonna be tough for the rest of my life. It’s like that, but I’m able to do it.

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

Woods nearly made the par-3 sixth hole, and the roar was deafening around the course when he birdied the 30-footer on the 16th. His first round was a victory round on its own, and when he finished by making an 8-footer for par on the last hole, the crowd rose as one to give him a standing ovation.

Afterwards, he was in pain and he was tired. But the adrenaline was still flowing, and it seemed he couldn’t wait any longer.

“I’m going to hurt, yes. That’s how it is,” he said. “But the training cycles we’ve had to make sure I have the stamina to keep going – and it’s only one lap. We have three left. There’s a long way to go. and lots of moves to play.

Where Woods ends up after all those shots are probably not remembered as much as the fact that he managed to play at all. Nobody really expects him to win a sixth green jacket this week, although it seems foolish to keep selling 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 at times today,” said Cameron Smith, who starred in the group in front of Woods. “You can’t not look at him; he’s unreal.

At times it seemed like everyone at Augusta National was watching, though for the most part it was just a glimpse of a pink shirt through the fans thronging the fairways and greens. All around the golf course, fans wondered what Woods was up to and every time there was a loud 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 in 19 when I won because in 20 we had COVID and we had no one here, and I didn’t play last year. So having the customers completely outside and having that type of energy there was awesome to feel.

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

Yes, it was for one day only.

But what a day it was.

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at [email protected] or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg

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