He’s got them right where he wants them.
Tiger Woods shot 70 in the opening round of the Masters, which wasn’t good enough to lead. In fact, it left him off the first page of the leaderboard, tied with the likes of John Huh and Tim Clark, who were not on anyone’s short list of potential winners.
He finished four back of Australian Marc Leishman, four behind Sergio Garcia, three behind Dustin Johnson, two back of Rickie Fowler – who had two double bogeys – and a couple back of David Lynn, an affable Englishman that most casual fans wouldn’t know if he sat down next to them at the Krispy Kreme on Washington Road. He also trailed Trevor Immelman, who hasn’t won a tournament since he won this one five years ago. And he was behind a 53-year-old in the form of Fred Couples when he signed his scorecard.
Still, those who picked Tiger felt very confident in their choice. Leading after Day One is like leading the first 50 laps of a 500-mile race: It’s nice while it lasts, but has no bearing on the outcome.
Tiger wasn’t leading when the sun set on Thursday night in 1997, or in 2001, or 2002, and he certainly wasn’t leading at the end of the first round in 2005. The old adage that you can’t win the tournament on the first day has never been truer than Tiger’s opening-day record at the Masters.
In 1997, he shot 70 in the first round and trailed John Huston, Paul Stankowski and Paul Azinger. On Sunday afternoon he rolled in a final putt to win by 12 shots, a Masters record.
In 2001, Tiger opened with another 70 and was tied for 14th. He actually trailed one player, Scott Verplank, who ended up missing the cut. By Sunday, he was able to cruise home with a two-shot win to capture the Tiger Slam.
Then in 2002, he shot yet another 70 on Thursday and was tied for sixth, three behind Davis Love III. He won by three.
The last time Tiger won the Masters in 2005, he opened with a 74 and could have been in danger of missing the cut. Instead, he came roaring back to take a three-shot lead into the final round. Chris DiMarco caught him, but Tiger prevailed on the first playoff hole.
This time he shot one of the easiest 70s of the day, a round where he never looked out of control, never struggled with his swing and looked like he could have shaved off two or three more strokes off at any moment.
That is why Tiger’s 2 under should have the field worried. He looked like a Ferrari on cruise control, humming along with ease but looking as though he could shift to another gear at any moment.
He had 30 putts, more than his rounds at Doral and Bay Hill, but fewer than the majority of the field at Augusta National. “I didn’t leave myself the easiest of putts, so I’m pleased with how I putted,” he said afterward.
He only missed two putts inside 12 feet, a herculean feat at Augusta National, and the fairways he missed were marginal at best. There were no wide rights or hard lefts, no club-throwing hooks or two-fairway-over recoveries. He looked as close to the Tiger of 2000 as he has in years. And that is why he is still the favorite, no matter how far down the leaderboard he finishes on Thursday night.
“More so than most courses, you have to be very patient,” Tiger said underneath the oak tree after signing his card. “Especially with the greens being as soft as they were and as slow as they were, it will bait you into firing at some flags. You have to be very disciplined.”
That is another variable in his favor. No one in the last 15 years has been more disciplined on the golf course than Tiger Woods. The next three days should be no different.