AUGUSTA, Ga. — Tiger Woods‘ caddie, Joe LaCava, was sitting near the Augusta National practice putting green at the end of a long, hot day in the sun, waiting for his employer to show up to work overtime on his stroke. Dressed in Masters white, the caddie was talking about his cherished football Giants before he got going on his man’s chances to win a fifth green jacket.
“I think it could’ve been something in the 60s,” LaCava said of Woods’ two-under 70 on Thursday. “Ballstriking-wise, it was probably a 68 or a 69. But we’ll take 70.”
Yes, Tiger had good reason to take his 70 out of the chute at Augusta National. He shot that score in the opening rounds of his Masters victories in 1997, 2000 and 2001, before overcoming a 74 to win in 2005.
“I’ve shot this number and won four coats,” he said, erroneously, “so, hopefully, I can do it again.”
Woods could be forgiven for his lapse in memory. He is 43 after all, a fact regularly hammered home by a hairline that keeps running away from him. But even if his comments to the news media were made when he was a mere one stroke off the midafternoon pace — and before Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau finished with a share of the lead, thanks to 6-under 66s — Woods had earned his stated faith in himself.
Woods nearly won back-to-back majors last year. He didn’t win The Open or the PGA Championship, but he did end his five-year-plus overall winless drought last fall at the Tour Championship, where he said he proved to himself — with career victory No. 80 — that he had rediscovered how to win a big golf tournament.
Nothing is bigger in this sport than the Masters, of course, and it has been 14 years since Tiger eagerly slid into one of those coats. But he still has to be taken seriously as a credible leaderboard threat to Koepka, DeChambeau, Phil Mickelson and the rest.
“He’s swinging good,” LaCava said. “He’s driving it pretty well, his iron game is pretty good and he’s working on his short game really hard. That’s coming around. So, he’s certainly going in the right direction.
“There’s going to be a lot of scores higher than 70, so I don’t get too crazy on Day 1. But it’s nice to start with anything under par.”
In fact, Thursday marked the first time Woods broke par in the first round of the Masters since 2013. His past nine opening rounds in major championships included two at even par and seven north of par. When Tiger birdied the 14th hole at Augusta National, he moved to 3-under after his opening 14 holes for the first time in his 22 Masters appearances, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
Tiger Woods is happy with his first day at Augusta, but notes that he had some struggles on putts within 10 feet.
On that 14th hole, Woods recovered from a wayward drive by hitting a majestic shot high over the trees and onto the green.
“I’ve seen him hit that shot a million times,” LaCava said, “but still, you’ve got to pull it off. Under the circumstances, it was a hell of a shot.”
Wearing a mock turtleneck borrowed from his dynastic prime — this one a sharp navy blue — the old Woods looked like the Woods of old when he drained the long putt and pumped his right fist in the air.
“I feel very good,” Woods said. “I feel like I played well [Thursday] and I controlled my golf ball all day.”
He did miss short putts at Nos. 5 and 6. He did drop his iron to the ground after a wayward approach at No. 7. Woods made a mess of a birdie opportunity at the 15th, and he couldn’t recover from another tee shot into the trees at the 17th. But his moments of frustration didn’t define the round. Woods played smartly out of bunkers, and he seemed to stay within himself the entire round.
“It’s not a bad start,” he said.
Not even close. And now, Tiger needs to do what he couldn’t at last summer’s PGA Championship — run down Brooks Koepka, already a three-time major winner.
The young slugger and old slugger shared some time together Wednesday night at the annual Golf Writers Association of America awards dinner. Koepka won player of the year and Woods the Ben Hogan Award for his comeback from debilitating back pain and fusion surgery. Koepka was presented his award first, and as is customary for the player of the year, he was treated to a video montage of his brilliant season. Woods received his award next, and as is customary for the Ben Hogan winner, he was introduced to the audience with a verbal presentation (this one delivered by ESPN’s Bob Harig).
“How come I didn’t get a video?” Woods immediately said at the podium, drawing spirited laughter from the crowd. “I got Bob Harig.”
Woods was joking, but his humor is almost always inspired by genuine feelings. On his way out of the banquet room, Woods complained again to Harig (sorta jokingly) that he wasn’t celebrated with a Koepka-esque video tribute.
Truth was, Woods delivered a heartfelt speech about his injuries, about how he couldn’t “participate in life” and play with his kids two years ago and about how he thought his career was over. He thanked the assembled golf writers for promoting the game and for meeting his comeback with supportive commentary.
“I can’t thank you enough,” Tiger said.
Some people in the audience were stunned; they had never heard Woods speak in such endearing tones, especially about the media. But time and circumstance conspired to change the man, for the better, making him an easier contender to root for than he was in the past. Now, he finds himself on the perimeter of contention at the Masters with 54 holes to play, behind some big names with big games. Is a Woods victory still plausible?
“Tiger could be 75 years old,” PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan recently told ESPN, “and if he showed up at a tournament, I would say he has a chance to win.”
Woods certainly showed up at a tournament on Thursday, something he thought would never again be possible. He has overcome something much more daunting than a four-stroke Masters deficit. Don’t count him out yet.