The world’s No. 1 player rarely goes low in the opening round here, but he made two eagles and shot 4-under-par 68 to sit two shots behind 50-year-old leader Fred Couples on a day when players eligible for AARP benefits occupied prominent spots on the leaderboard.
The two eagles — on 8 and 15 — and the sub-70 opening round are Masters firsts for Woods, a four-time winner here who hasn’t played a competitive round since winning the Australian Masters a few weeks before the sex scandal broke that changed the world’s perception of him.
“It felt really good just to go out there and get in the rhythm of the round and go about my business,” Woods said. “I expected to go out and shoot something under par (Thursday). After looking at all the (earlier) scores, guys were just tearing this place apart.”
Thirty-one players broke par on the day and 44 shot par or better. The course played to a stroke average of 73.145.
Couples’ pace-setting 66 was his best Masters round and his first in the 60s since shooting 69 in the second round of 2004.
Among the five players tied for second at 5-under 67 is 60-year-old Tom Watson, a Masters champion in 1981 — when Tiger was 5. Watson was the feel-good story of the year last season when he led for most of the tournament but eventually lost the British Open in a playoff to Stewart Cink. It was his best Masters round since 1990 (67) and his first round in the 60s since 1997. If he can hold it together, he’ll make the cut for only the third time since 1995.
Two-time Masters champ Phil Mickelson, Lee Westwood, reigning PGA champion Y.E. Yang and K.J. Choi are also in that group.
Woods said the reception from the patrons was “incredible all day,” and said it helped keep his spirits up during particularly testy times with his putter.
He was met by appreciative and well-behaved galleries on the ground, but was the target of two flyovers from planes carrying bawdy banners.
The first, which appeared just as Woods reached the first tee, read “Tiger, did you mean Bootyism?” — a shot at the Buddhist principles the player claims to have strayed from during his extra-marital affairs that made him the butt of countless jokes and cost him millions in endorsement money, the admiration of fans worldwide and perhaps even his marriage.
A second banner flew over the course as Woods played the seventh hole. It read, “Sex Addict? Yeah. Right. Sure. Me too.”
Woods said he did not see either plane and “absolutely (did) not” hear anything negative from the crowd.
But Cink, playing two groups ahead of Woods, did see the planes and called them “distasteful.”
“That was probably the most appropriate word for what they did,” he said. “If they get a lot of satisfaction out of that, if they’re pranksters or jokesters, then good for them.”
Woods said “it wouldn’t be the first time” someone tried to poke fun at his expense.
The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported the banners were commissioned through a Toledo, Ohio, advertising agency. The newspaper’s Web site quoted the agency’s owner, identified as Jim Miller, saying the banners will continue to fly and will get “better and better.”
The FAA issues an advisory to pilots about the airspace over Augusta National, but the prank planes are not believed to have violated any FAA regulations.
Unlike in his first round in the U.S. Open at Winged Foot after his layoff following the death of his father, Woods on Thursday got into the rhythm of his round early.
Saying he was “calm all day” and “plodding along” in his round, Woods made his first birdie at 3, but was in position on 1, 2 and 6. He bogeyed the seventh hole, then eagled 8 and birdied 9 to turn in 3-under. He gave a shot back at 10, birdied the par-5 13 then showed the one moment of frustration he said in his Monday introspective he would try to control.
After hitting a bad approach shot into the gallery, he let the club go with a flipping motion and spun in frustration. He wound up making bogey, then bounced back with an eagle at the par-5 15th.
“I’m very pleased,” Woods said. “I hit the ball well all day. I hit one loose shot there on 14 and hit a sweet pitch and … should have made the putt. … If I putted well today, it could have been a really special round.”
They were for Couples and Watson.
On Monday, after playing a practice round with Woods, Couples said it would be a “pipe dream” for him to win a second green jacket. But he has come to Augusta playing some of the best golf of his career, which includes three victories on the Champions Tour this season.
The 1992 Masters champion made seven birdies and played the back in 4-under-par. He turned in 2-under, made three birdies in a four-hole stretch from 12 through 15 and then birdied 17 to take the outright lead.
“I’m leading the tournament at the moment, but there’s a bunch of 5-unders up there,” Couples said. “To win Augusta at age 50 would be a pipe dream. Can I still win? Of course. It would be a nice dream, that’s for sure, but I’ve got a lot of golf left to even think about being in contention.”
That’s what they said about Watson early on at the British Open last year and he took it all the way to a playoff.
His 67 might have been the best of that bunch, because it was bogey free. He made a 30-footer on 1 to get the round started, added one at 3, then birdied three of his last four holes.
“It’s a long shot for somebody, still, honestly, of our age to do it, but, still, they can do it,” Watson said. “I’ve said The Open Championships is on courses that are bouncy and firm and don’t play as long as Augusta National plays, so, in my perspective, I felt better with a links course in my hands than Augusta National.
“Ask Freddie. He’s right there. He can carry the ball 300 yards still in the air. That’s a long way — for a 50-year-old.”
Al Muskewitz covers golf for The Star. He can be reached at 235-3577.