Tiger Woods came into Augusta National Golf Club as the odds-on favorite to win his fifth green jacket. After a steady opening round 70, Tiger is showing signs reminiscent of his previous four Masters titles.
Tiger looked calm and collected as he paced his way around Augusta, making his first birdie at the par-3 No. 6 hole after a brilliant approach shot to five feet. Woods also capitalized on the par-5s throughout the day, making birdies on Nos. 8 and 13.
If history tells us anything about Tiger at the Masters, it is that he needs to capitalize on the longer holes if he has any hope of winning. Over his 19 Masters appearances Woods has averaged more than 7-under par on Augusta's par-5s, including an astonishing 8.75-under par average in each of his four victories. Woods finished Thursday's opening round at 2-under on the par-5s, which is better than his 1-under total on the holes last year over the tournament's four days.
Still, despite a solid round by any measure, there was a feeling that Tiger should have gone lower. Then again, Tiger was never a fan of breaking 70 in his opening Masters round.
In fact, Tiger has only ever broken 70 in his opening round once in 19 years. He's never done so in a year he's won, so one could argue that Thursday's round has put Tiger right where he needs to be.
"It's a good start," Woods told reporters following his round. "Some years some guys shoot 65 starting out here. But right now I'm only four back and I'm right there."
Such has been the mentality of the current World No. 1: as long as he builds a solid early-round start, any tournament is within reach come Sunday. While he is surely well aware of his history in this event -- and his trend of starting "slowly" -- Woods seemed displeased with his play numerous times throughout and after his round.
Woods admitted the course conditions were primed for low scoring, thanks to soft landing areas caused by overnight rains and foggy skies. When the wind picked up late Thursday afternoon, however, Augusta became a different golf course.
"It was benign, especially starting out," Woods said. "The wind picked up in the middle part of the round. Got a little swirly there at Amen Corner [the 11th, 12th and 13th holes], as usual. But overall, I think the biggest challenge today was just the speed of the greens. They weren't quite there. They looked it, but just weren't quite putting it."
It took him 30 putts to manage his round on Thursday, which he was pleased with overall.
"I thought I putted well today," Woods said. "I left myself some pretty little par saves and was able to make those. I need to continue hitting greens and continue hitting the right spots [on the green]. I didn't always leave myself the easiest putts today, but overall I was pretty satisfied."
Putting has always Tiger's biggest foil. When he putts well, Tiger is unbeatable. At times it seems his simply needs to reach the putting surface to assure a birdie. When he struggles with his flatstick, however, Tiger loses his edge substantially. He becomes more manageable to his competition. In a way, he becomes more human.
Except he has been anything but "human" over the past few weeks. His three wins in six weeks is by far the best on the PGA Tour, catapulting him to the top of the Official World Golf Rankings in the process. Woods overcame his biggest rival -- Rory McIlroy -- to regain his spot atop golf's mountain. There has not been a buzz of this magnitude for Tiger since his US Open victory at Torrey Pines in 2008. Much is expected of Tiger, perhaps more now than ever.
Still, disappointment was apparent in Tiger's body language throughout his round. One such example was at the par-5 no. 15, where Tiger's long iron to the easily-reachable green hooked to the left. Tiger's shoulders slumped almost immediately after striking the shot. His club dropped to the fairway in disgust. A few choice words were uttered under his breath. He would settle for par, but he wouldn't like it one bit.
So where does this leave Tiger for his second round? A middle-of-the-pack position following the opening round should be familiar to Woods, and an early afternoon tee time on Friday will allow him ample time to work out any kinks on the range in the morning.
It would seem Woods' biggest threat to winning his fifth green jacket is himself, all things considered. There is no question The Masters is Tiger's crown jewel event, nor would it be a stretch to assume he might "want it" too much.
"You have to just hit the ball and just play," he said when asked how he can guard against being too anxious to win. "We've got a long way to go. I just have to go out there and play shot-to-shot. This golf course could change dramatically by tomorrow afternoon; it's going to be very, very different than it is right now. I'll have to just make adjustments."
Scoring conditions may remain optimal thanks to more rain in the overnight forecast, however as Tiger suggested, Augusta has a way of showing a completely different look over the span of a few hours. The bigger question golf fans will be waiting to answer is exactly what version of Tiger Woods will show up Friday afternoon.