AUGUSTA, Ga. — Gratifying as it was for Tiger Woods to hear that familiar roar as he walked up to the 18th green, it had to have scared the bejeezus out of Sungjae Im, Cameron Smith and everyone else on the leaderboard.
Give the 15-time major champion an opportunity, especially at Augusta National, and odds are pretty good he’ll make you regret it.
Just 14 months removed from a horrific car crash that shattered his right leg and initially had him fearing he might not walk again, Woods is lurking after his first round of the Masters. Credit him, certainly. He made impressive par saves on Nos. 1, 9 and 18, as well as a nice up-and-down on 11, to finish the day at 1-under.
But those ahead of him opened the door for Woods, too. Im had a chance to get to 6 under, but his shot out of a greenside bunker on 18 hit the back of the cup and caromed off. Smith double-bogeyed 18, going from 6 under for the day to 4.
Scottie Scheffler, the world No. 1, and 2020 Masters champion Dustin Johnson each had bogeys in their last three holes, leaving them just 2 shots in front of Woods.
“I’m only three back, and we’ve got a long way to go,” Woods said.
You can take that as a statement of fact, that this was only one round and there are still three more to play on one of the most physically challenging courses there is. Or you can take that as a warning, a reminder to everyone in front of him that few players in the field know Augusta National as well as Woods.
And not only know it, but know how to tame it.
Woods is a five-time Masters champion and, yes, his prodigious talent is a big reason for that. But Woods also knows this golf course intimately. Where he can miss and where he can’t. How the greens are going to play. Where he can get away with being aggressive and where going for it will backfire.
That experience is only going to become more important over the coming days. The wind was already beginning to pick up Thursday afternoon, and more is forecast for Friday. By the time Sunday rolls around, Augusta National will barely resemble the course it was Thursday.
“This golf course is going to change dramatically,” Woods said. “It’s going to get a lot more difficult.”
When it does, who do you want to put your money on? The guy who has been playing the Masters since before the internet was really a thing? Or guys who had chances to pad their leads and couldn’t do it?
Yes, Woods’ physical stamina remains a question. This is a man playing on a leg that was rebuilt after his February 2021 car wreck and who had a bad back even before that. The hitch in his gait was visible as he walked up the 18th fairway to check the green, and he stretched out his back whenever there was a holdup in play.
“I can swing a golf club,” Woods said. “The walking is not easy. It’s difficult. It’s going to be difficult for the rest of my life. It’s just the way it is. But I’m able to do it.”
Woods praised the work he’s done with his physical therapists and the rest of his medical team, and said there will be “lots of ice” after his round. The adrenaline helps, too.
When Woods walked to the first tee, the crowds were as deep as they’ve been for any Sunday leader. The fairways were lined on every hole he played. Woods was clearly moved by the support, a big smile on his face as he left the course to another round of cheers.
“The place was electric,” he said. “To have the patrons fully out and to have that type of energy out there was awesome to feel.”
Don’t discount that. If Woods can clean up the mistakes he made Thursday – if he left one shot short, he left almost a dozen – and is anywhere near to contention on the weekend, those in front of him will face a task more daunting than Augusta National.
Perhaps his competitors have forgotten his ruthless competitiveness in the last 14 months, or maybe they’re simply as awestruck as everyone else at what Woods is managing to do. But as he said Tuesday, he didn’t come to the Masters for a participation trophy.
He came with his eyes on another green jacket, and he intends to play like that.
Stumbles like those of the folks in front of him will only make that task easier for Woods.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.