AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — He walked among the azaleas with just the slightest hint of a limp.
He couldn’t quite bend over to read the putts on Augusta National’s tricky greens.
Otherwise, there was nothing to indicate that Tiger Woods nearly lost his right leg 14 months ago in a devastating car wreck.
Woods’ greatest comeback yet got off to an electrifying start Thursday when he shot a 1-under 71 in the opening round of the Masters.
“To end up in the red,” he said confidently, “I’m right where I need to be.”
As Woods walked briskly toward the clubhouse after a grueling day that stretched to nearly 5 1/2 hours, he heard shouts of “Way to go, Tiger!” from the spectators.
He was just three strokes off the lead - with roughly half the field still on the course - after making three birdies, a pair of bogeys and a whole lot of solid pars — many of them salvaged by his deft touch around the greens.
Woods pulled off one last Houdini act at No. 18. After yanking his tee shot into the towering pine trees on the right, he had to lay up short of the green.
But he pitched to 6 feet and rolled in the putt to keep his score under par.
“I felt good,” Woods said. “Once the adrenaline kicks in and I get into my own little world, I knew I should be able to handle business.”
Yep, there’s still a long way to go. Woods still must prove his body can bounce back day after day — four of them, should he make it to Sunday.
But it felt as if he was already a winner.
“You just can’t not watch him,” said Australia’s Cameron Smith, among those tied for the lead after shooting a 68. “It’s an inspiration with him coming back and playing golf.”
With storm clouds giving way to brilliant spring sunshine, Woods defied everyone’s expectations.
Except his own.
When Woods delivered an emphatic clutch of the right fist after rolling in a 30-footer for birdie at the 16th hole, it seemed like old times at one of golf’s most hallowed courses.
From the collapse of his marriage to multiple surgeries, Woods has always found a way to bounce back.
He’s doing it again, looking every bit like the guy who’s won five green jackets and defied the odds time and time again.
A tap-in birdie at No. 6 sent the patrons into a frenzy. A sloppy bogey at the par-5 eighth brought some groans, but Woods’ brilliant short game kept him from posting one of those big numbers that can spell doom at Augusta.
He made it clear he had every intention of winning when he decided to make the Masters his first competitive tournament since that horrific car wreck in February 2021 led him to say doctors said his right leg might need to be amputated.
Woods started the round with five straight pars — he just missed a birdie at the tough No. 5 hole when a 15-foot putt lipped out — before delivering a vintage tee shot at the par-3 sixth.
The ball climbed up a ridge on the green and stopped 2 feet short of the flag, leaving Woods with a gimme that put him in red numbers for the first time.
A wedge shot and errant chip led to a bogey at No. 8, a hole that should be a prime birdie opportunity. “A loss of concentration there,” he moaned.
But Woods bounced back with a tricky downhiller from 8 feet to save par at No. 9.
Woods insisted his hands still held the amazing touch that has helped him win 15 major titles — the first of them 25 years ago at this very place — and capture a record-tying 82 victories on the PGA Tour.
Beginning at No. 7, he missed the green on five straight holes, but kept recovering with his short irons and putter.
Wearing a pink shirt and black pants, Woods was greeted by thunderous applause when his name was announced to a huge gallery surrounding the first tee.
Woods failed to make solid contact with his first shot: a 264-yard drive that faded behind a bunker on the right side of the fairway. His approach rolled off the front of the green, but he sank a 10-foot putt to save par, bringing another huge roar from the patrons.
Woods walked slowly, knowing that he faced four tough days on an extremely hilly course if he manages to make the cut.
He couldn’t fully bend over to read putts, forcing him to rely more on caddie Joe LaCava to help him judge the treacherous greens at Augusta National.
But those felt like minor inconveniences after all he’s been through.
Woods’ career was in jeopardy after the car wreck left him confined to a hospital bed for three months. Woods was out of the public eye until last November, when he posted a video of him swinging a club with a simple message, “Making progress.”
His lone tournament in the 508 days since he last competed was a just-for-fun event in December in which he rode in a cart and was paired with his 13-year-old son, Charlie.
Despite the long layoff and the obvious physical limitations with screws and rods still holding the bones in place in his right leg, Woods clearly thinks he can win his sixth green jacket.
At 46, he would be the oldest Masters champion by three weeks over Jack Nicklaus.
The biggest question is how Woods holds up over 18 holes over four straight days, presuming he makes the cut as he always does at Augusta.
He walked 18 holes last week — his first big test — during a scouting trip with his son.
Playing an entire tournament will be much more challenging.
“Lots of ice,” he said, breaking into a big grin.
Just like old times.
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963
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