AUGUSTA, Ga. — Tiger Woods played like the last five months never happened.
Even more surprising, he felt that way, too.
No longer the same person after he was caught cheating on his wife, Woods looked every bit the same golfer Thursday when he opened with a 4-under 68 — his best first round ever at Augusta National — that left him only two shots behind 50-year-old Fred Couples on an extraordinary opening day at the Masters.
It just didn’t seem that way to Woods.
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Standing on the first tee, looking down a fairway lined with thousands of spectators curious to see how he would respond to a sex scandal that shocked the world, Woods didn’t flinch.
“It felt normal,” he said. “Try to hit a little fade off the first tee, try to take something off of it and make sure I got it in play. That was about it. From there, I just went about my business.”
Indeed, he was the same Tiger.
He pledged to control his emotions on the course, yet there was little change. Woods twirled his club after a good drive, slammed it after a few bad ones. He pumped his fist after making the first of two eagles and sunk to his knees when he missed a birdie putt on the 16th that slowed his climb up the leaderboard.
And just like always, he complained about not making enough putts.
“Otherwise, it could have been a very special round,” Woods said.
Yet it was special in so many ways.
Couples, who played a practice round with Woods on Monday, sauntered along in tennis shoes and no socks and shot a 6-under 66. It was his best score ever at the Masters and made him the oldest player to be the outright leader for any round.
“I never really thought about what I was shooting,” said Couples, who already has won three times this year on the 50-and-older Champions Tour. “It was a fun day for me. I still think I can play, and if I putt well I’ve got to be some kind of factor in my mind.”
Tom Watson, at 60 the oldest player in this Masters, picked up from his amazing ride at last year’s British Open with a bogey-free round of 67 that left him tied with Lee Westwood, Phil Mickelson, PGA champion Y.E. Yang and K.J. Choi.
“My goals were to play better than I’ve played in the last five or six years, and I achieved that — for the first round,” Watson said. “I’m playing pretty well. I’ve said I have to play better than 90 percent to be successful on this golf course.”
Still, this day was always going to be about Woods.
He had not hit a competitive shot in 144 days, since winning the Australian Masters on Nov. 15 for his 82nd victory around the world. A four-time Masters champion, he has never come to Augusta National with so much uncertainty — about his game, and mostly how fans would respond to a player whose impeccable image had been shattered by tawdry tabloid tales of sex.
The patrons were on their best behavior, as expected at the most polite tournament in golf. Augusta National can’t control the perimeter of the course, however, and a couple of planes toted banners that poked fun at Woods. On the ground, the gallery was mostly positive, with a few exceptions.
“He doesn’t have the right character and integrity to represent golf,” Larry Isenhour said. “That’s why I came out early this morning to applaud Jack Nicklaus.”
Nicklaus, the six-time Masters champion, joined Arnold Palmer as an honorary starter. The two old rivals hit the ceremonial tee shots to open the Masters, and chairman Billy Payne said, “The 2010 Masters is now officially begun. Have fun.”
And they did.
Clouds moved in quickly and kept the sun from baking out the greens, and some of the hole locations allowed for birdies. The low scores weren’t a surprise, only the names next to them.
Watson had two birdies in three holes to put his name on the leaderboard and bring back memories of his magical run at Turnberry last summer when he missed an eight-foot putt on the last hole of regulation and then lost in a playoff at the British Open. He never went away this time, never made a bogey and wound up matching his best score ever at Augusta.
Mickelson came to the Masters for the first time without having finished in the top five all year, but he looked as comfortable as ever, particularly on the back nine with an eagle-birdie-birdie stretch that put him atop the leaderboard at 67.
“I do love this place,” Mickelson said. “I don’t have to be perfect. I can miss a shot and still recover. It relaxes me when I go down Magnolia Lane.”
Westwood, Europe’s top player, had only broken 70 twice in his Masters career until running off seven birdies for a 67.
Throughout the morning, however, anticipation was building toward Woods’ return. A single row of fans stood behind the ropes along the first fairway a half-hour before Woods teed off. When he approached the green, the crowd stood 10-deep in spots, a gallery that included European Tour chief George O’Grady and about 15 people from Woods’ circle — his mother, friends and sponsors like Nike chairman Phil Knight.