In the spirit of Augusta National, maybe we should treat Tiger Woods as just another golfer today. Perhaps we all thought there was something unsavoury about Woods making his return in such a stifling totalitarian atmosphere, with the club refusing to bend its rules about television coverage and policing the galleries for the smallest demonstration of adverse sentiment. But you can’t deny it made for good viewing. The almost hysterical reserve of the broadcasters served to put the focus on Tiger’s golf, which remains exquisite despite his brief vacation.
(The one venue of protest was the sky—even Augusta National can’t control that—where planes hired by pranksters appeared trailing banners that read “TIGER—DID YOU MEAN BOOTYISM” and “SEX ADDICT? YEAH. RIGHT. SURE. ME TOO.” These struck me as disappointingly feeble wisecracks for someone to be spending that kind of money on.)
Woods’ 68 is his best-ever first round at the Masters, even though, unlike some players ahead of him on the leaderboard, his position in the next-to-last threesome on the course forced him deal with increasingly chaotic late-afternoon winds and even a smattering of rain during his time in Amen Corner. This didn’t stop him from making everyone else look helpless. Time and time again he’d swoop in on holes other golfers had all but vandalized and play approach shots that were the equivalent of declaring “THIS is how it’s done here, students.”
He posted two eagles, along with three bogeys that no one could reasonably regard as a sign of “rust”. I was most impressed with the birdie on the par-five 13th, where he played his second shot onto a geometrically perfect spot on the rising back surface of the green and watched it back up to within ten feet of the hole. He literally couldn’t have done that more elegantly if he had the ball on a string (not without teleporting so that he had a different angle on it after it landed, anyway). More often than anyone else, Tiger plays shots that are more impressive, even to a near-total golf ignoramus, than flukily putting the ball directly into the hole would be.
But I’m much more happy about the early tentative vindication for my thesis, developed after Tom Watson’s down-to-the-wire battle for the British Open last year, that there might be no such thing as an old golfer anymore. Why should there be? We have LASIK, a growing buffet of anti-inflammatories, and what amounts to cheap consumer bionics now. There’s probably a golf use for Botox, though I don’t know what it would be. (I’m no pharmacist but I suspect it would kill you if you took enough to keep your head still during your swing.) Watson’s Open run followed mere days after he received a double hip replacement. People joked about this, when he led at Turnberry after the first round, as if it were a liability. They’re bound to stop joking and start booking operating-room time any minute now.
Watson himself declared before the tournament that he is too old to stay in contention on a course as long as Augusta. Fans should be aware that it’s only 3% longer than the Ailsa Course he dominated at Turnberry. But maybe he should be taken at his word and expected to succumb to some upstart punk. Like clubhouse leader Fred Couples—who at 50 has the extremely rare distinction of having outlived two ex-wives—or 52-year-old Sandy Lyle, three strokes behind Couples and two behind Watson, whose game has been in the wilderness almost as long as Watson’s was.
Note, too, that Watson’s Open good-luck charm, British Amateur champ 16-year-old Italian Matteo Manassero, is playing at Augusta for the last time before going pro. Manassero shot 71 today, which leaves him T-22nd with Mike Weir and Ernie Els and on pace to make the cut easily. Maybe there’s no such thing as a young golfer either?