AUGUSTA, Ga. — At ease as he played his 87th round at the Masters, Tiger Woods stalked the Augusta National Golf Club on Thursday with the aplomb of someone sauntering through his living room in search of his favorite recliner, foot stool and coaster, for the cool drink in his hand. Shot by shot, the path was so familiar he could have negotiated it in the dark.
Because Woods has won the tournament five times and has been a Masters fixture for the past 25 years, it is possible he has played the golf course in those conditions. And probably still broken par.
Woods, the reigning champion, was not the leader after Thursday’s first-round play, which was delayed by a nearly three-hour thunderstorm that left dozens of golfers unable to finish their sessions. With a four-under-par 68, Woods was tied for fourth and quietly three strokes behind the leader, Paul Casey.
But Woods’s commanding round was the loudest statement of the day. It has been an up-and-down year for Woods, but on this day he was composed and virtually never out of position on the devilish Augusta National layout. It almost seemed that he was on cruise control, as if he could coast to a 68.
“I did everything well today,” Woods, who is not prone to self-congratulation, said after his round.
Every other seasoned contender in the field knows the Masters history when Woods has a good opening round. It is not true that he has won every time he has shot 70 or better in the first round. It has, however, happened four times. He has seriously contended on the three other occasions when he has been two strokes or more under par after the first day, finishing fourth twice and sixth once.
When Woods was asked if he was surprised at how well he had played given his uneven performances during the bulk of this season, he shrugged.
“Understanding how to play this golf course is just a big part of playing well here,” he said. “It’s so familiar.”
He knows the territory; he could find the television remote in the dark of his living room, too.
Woods’s steady play was a stark contrast to most everything else happening during the first Masters round ever contested in November. Nothing else seemed usual, with the typically treacherous greens wet and slow, the spring floral colors missing and the galleries absent because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“There were a lot of differences today,” Woods said. “There was a drone flying over the green. You don’t hear drones here. There were no patrons, no roars. A lot of firsts today. That’s kind of the way this entire year has been.”
Many players had the same sense of being in recognizable, yet altered, place. Xander Schauffele shot a brilliant 67 to finish the day in a tie for second with Webb Simpson, but he seemed unsure about what to make of his round.
“A lot of it felt wrong, in all honesty,” Schauffele said. “The greens are really soft, so there isn’t a whole lot to be scared of. It was really strange. You would play less break on putts and hit it harder, which is something you never do here.”
Casey, who has had five top-10 finishes in 13 previous Masters appearances, made an eagle on the second hole with an approach shot that he expected to end up over the green.
“I hit a 6-iron to a left-hand pin on No. 2, and you can’t hit that shot in April,” Casey said. “Today, it just pitched and stopped instantly. In April, it would have one-hopped over into the patrons. I probably make five, not three.”
But when it comes to entertaining, unforeseen moments in this first round of the Masters, it would hard to beat the sight of seven golfers, caddies and officials chest high in the azaleas in search of Bryson DeChambeau’s wayward ball.
After starting his round on the 10th hole, DeChambeau knocked his tee shot on No. 13 into the trees and tried for a delicate recovery. Instead, he badly hooked his ball and it ended up buried in the bushes behind the green. Then, in case he did not find that ball, DeChambeau hit a provisional shot that landed in Rae’s Creek, short of the green.
“I was really worried about finding that ball,” said DeChambeau, who entered the round as the tournament favorite. “I would have made a bad number if I didn’t find it.”
After finding the ball, he declared it unplayable and had to drop on a steep slope. He then flubbed a dicey chip and ended up making double-bogey. DeChambeau did mount an impressive rally to finish his round at two under par and stay in the title chase. But his booming drives, which were expected to overpower Augusta National, ended up being a factor on only a few holes. Also, he did not use the 48-inch driver — the longest allowed — that he had been experimenting with.
“My driving wasn’t great,” DeChambeau said. “You know, this place can bite back if you make mistakes. But I’m very happy with the patience I showed today.”