Tiger Woods faced the acid test of Augusta National on Thursday, teeing it up in the 82nd Masters in search of his first major title in a decade.
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.
Six-time champion Nicklaus and three-time winner Gary Player fired the ceremonial opening shots Thursday to get the first major of 2018 underway.
In bright sunshine and chilly temperatures, Austin Cook nabbed the first birdie of the tournament.
Woods, making his first major start since missing the cut at the 2015 PGA Championship, was due to tee off at 10:42 a.m. (1442 GMT) alongside Australian Marc Leishman and England’s Tommy Fleetwood.
While Tiger has drawn the lion’s share of attention this week, his comeback bid is just one of the compelling stories in what’s shaping up to be a classic Masters.
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.
– Only one round one in 60s –
Amid the array of in-form players, Woods still captures the imagination.
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 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 goal amid the hype is that at least one facet of his game is good enough to carry him to a win.
“I really hope I’m playing my best golf,” he said. “I have played here, and I’ve won here, not playing my absolute best, but there’s got to be a certain part of my game that’s on.
“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… 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.”