AUGUSTA – The great ones can do this. They can suffer personal meltdowns and see their lives morph into manna from Hades for TMZ, then clock in and perform like nothing has happened.
It’s possible Tiger Woods will spend the rest of his life a punch line (sometimes pulled by an airplane). But how many have been his peer when it comes to an ability to compartmentalize?
He returned to golf after five months. Then he shot his best first round ever at the Masters: 68. He had two eagles and three birdies and missed at least three putts that could’ve dropped him to at a tournament-leading 7 under par.
He is on the leaderboard. There’s new headline material. Sort of.
“Am I surprised Tiger Woods is on the leaderboard?” Stewart Cink said, repeating a question. “Is that what it’s come to?”
Some things are out of Woods’ control. The jokes. The choreographed assaults from his former alleged scorned mistresses. The air space over Augusta National, whose surface-to-air missiles were surprisingly non-operational Thursday.
For that matter, there’s no guarantee Woods can even control himself. Too much tabloid evidence to the contrary right now. The guy makes Dionysus look like the Greek god of Monks.
But he can control his golf.
“I didn’t have the luxury of playing events coming into this tournament,” Woods said after his first round of competitive golf since the Australian Masters in November. “Other players did. Even if I did play, I wouldn’t have been ready, anyways, so my practice sessions has to be more intense than usual. It’s been done before. [Ben] Hogan did it after the accident.”
OK, slightly different circumstances. Hogan survived a near-fatal car accident in 1949 that left him with several fractured bones. But he returned to competitive golf after spending two months in the hospital.
Hogan never lost his moral compass. Woods’ problems are self-inflicted, and it’s clear nobody is going to let him forget it for a while.
His tee time was 1:42. The first aerial attack started a few minutes earlier when an airplane pulled a banner reading, “TIGER: DID YOU MEAN BOOTYISM?”
If only he were a Jehovah’s Witness or Falun Gong, he might have been able to avoid being the punch line of a punny one-liner.
The plane was still circling as Woods teed off. It followed him to the first green, then to the second tee, then down the fairway.
Eventually, Air Mock disappeared, only to return during his seventh hole, pulling a new message: “SEX ADDICT? YEAH RIGHT. SURE. ME TOO!”
Woods said he didn’t see the plane. When asked of someone going to the trouble to jab him like that, he responded, “It wouldn’t be the first time.”
Otherwise, this was a relatively lampoon-free day. Fans were predictably polite and warm.
As a club member said earlier in the week, “This isn’t Shea Stadium.”
Woods said he was “saying thank you all day.” He tipped his cap to fans before his round and at seemingly every hole.
Former Georgia Tech golfer Matt Kucher, who was in his grouping, said, “It was cool. It was neat having a close seat for Tiger’s welcome back. He had everybody wishing him well.”
As promised, he kept his emotions in check. His celebrations after an eagle on eight and a birdie on nine were relatively low key.
There were frustrations on the back nine. His 10th tee shot bounced off the trees into the rough, leading to a bogey. Then came the putting issues at Amen Corner. A potential birdie putt on 11 rolled past the hole. Another potential birdie putt at 12 rolled over the edge. A potential eagle putt at 13 lipped out. A potential 4 under over three holes turned into 1 under.
When Woods drove his second shot on 14 into the gallery, the cumulative effect led him to drop his club and spin around in disgust. It was the closest he came to a tirade. But after bogeying the 14th, he eagled the 15th after reaching the green in two, then parred the next three.
When asked what he makes of shooting a 68 after five months off, Woods cracked, “I guess I need a longer layoff then.”
Given the backdrop, the humor fell a bit flat. He might just want to let his game speak for himself for a while.
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