AUGUSTA, Ga. — His drive on the 17th hole ricocheted around the top of a tree like it was inside a game of pinecone pinball. “RIGHT!” someone yelled, but even with that warning, the spectators who were ducking for cover had no idea which way it was going to go.
And — golf metaphor alert! — the same is true for the man who hit it.
Tiger Woods might have positioned himself perfectly to win his first Masters since The Office was still a hot new sitcom. Or he might just be leading these galleries at Augusta National on another four-day tease.
The answer was hard to find in a first-round performance that was equal parts promising and frustration. He finished 2 under for the day, in an 11th-place logjam behind co-leaders — golf robot Brooks Koepka and mad scientist Bryson DeChambeau — who were tied at 6 under when Thursday’s action ended.
It was, based on his post-round interviews, a position he really, really likes.
“Good solid start,” Woods said. “I’ve shot 70 the last four times I’ve won the green jacket. And it’s an awfully good start.”
This is not actually true: Woods shot a 74 in the first round in 2005, his last victory here, but did shoot 70 in the first three wins. You think CBS was going to quibble with the details? The network execs had to be drooling when Woods, with back-to-back birdies on the 14th and 15th holes, climbed to the top of the leaderboard.
He made that possible with a ridiculous shot from the woods on 14, when he found no crack in the tree line and decided to just hit his approach over them completely. The roar from that shot and the subsequent 20-foot putt for the birdie shook the course like the old days.
And then came the frustration. He lipped out another birdie putt on the par-3 16th hole, and on 17, couldn’t replicate that magic when that tee shot bounced around in the pines, landed in the rough and rolled back down a short slope.
“195 (yards)?” he asked his caddie, Joe LaCava, after sizing up the shot.
“Yes. Without too much cut,” LaCava replied, and then Woods went to work.
Woods smacked a 5 iron to the fringe — a fine shot, given the circumstances — but couldn’t get up and down to save par. The bogey sapped some of the energy from his round, and later in the afternoon, Koepka’s brilliant performance was a tidy reminder that he’s the player who has won three of the last seven majors.
Tiger, of course, will relish just having a shot. On Wednesday night, he was honored with the Ben Hogan Award — given to a player who continues to compete despite physical handicap or serious illness — at the Golf Writers Association of America dinner. In his acceptance speech, he revealed just how close he was to giving up the sports entirely.
“I knew I was going to be a part of the game, but playing the game again?” Woods said. “I couldn’t even do that with my son Charlie. I couldn’t even putt in my backyard.”
From hitting his first drive after spinal fusion surgery “not even 90 yards” to contending in the last two majors of 2018 was a remarkable comeback. But to win his 15th major, at age 43, against the best players in the world? That is something else entirely.
Koepka. DeChambeau. Dustin Johnson. Old pal Phil Mickelson. They are all two shots or more ahead of him. Can Woods keep up?
“The whole idea is to try and peak for four times a year,” he said. “And so I feel like my body’s good and my game’s good, it’s sharp, so just got to go out there and execute and I got to do the proper things and if I do miss I miss in a proper spot.
“I mean, there’s a 61‑year‑old up there on that board (Bernhard Langer), he knows how to play this golf course, so it’s a matter of missing the golf ball in the correct spots and picking your spots and when to be aggressive.”
Woods, without question, will have to be more aggressive in the second round. He’ll have to avoid the trees, get hot with the putter, and stare down the younger players who long ago have passed him as the best in the world.
Which direction is this journey headed? Nobody knows. But we will soon.
Steve Politi may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @StevePoliti. Find NJ.com on Facebook.