Sunday 22 April 2018

Tiger grinds way out of trouble to keep Major dream alive

Tiger Woods and his caddie Joe LaCava consider the 14-time Major champion’s options on the par-three fourth hole during yesterday’s opening round at the US Masters. Photo: Matt Slocum/AP
Tiger Woods and his caddie Joe LaCava consider the 14-time Major champion’s options on the par-three fourth hole during yesterday’s opening round at the US Masters. Photo: Matt Slocum/AP
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Tiger Woods all but came here trailing gun-carriages, but Augusta National hasn't a name for deferring to presumptuous storylines.

The four-time Masters champion was upstaged for much of the day by Australian playing partner Marc Leishman, the first round leader in 2013 off to another flier here until double-bogey at 15 knocked him from the top of the board. While Woods missed five of the first nine fairways, never looking entirely at ease with his game, Leishman had reached the turn top of the leaderboard at three-under par.

Tiger was one-over at that point, leaked two more shots at Amen Corner and looked to be headed for a big number until birdies at 14 and 16 got his challenge back in focus.

But he was two-under for the final six, carding a one-over 73 that seemed reasonable return from a round in which he failed to birdie any of the par-fives.

On a day defending champion Sergio Garcia carded a wretched 13 at the par five 15th, Henrik Stenson and Charley Hoffman became the early clubhouse leaders.

Leishman had been four better than Woods at the turn, and picked up another birdie at 11 and, for a time, looked to be playing the golf of his life.

Read more: McIlroy finds some Masters magic in impressive opener

Remarkably, Woods has only once broken 70 in a Masters first round, and it never looked likely here.

The 'miracle' it seemed that all of golf yearned for was proving stubbornly elusive. In one sense, maybe that was inevitable. Woods has made just 24 tournament starts on the PGA tour since the end of 2013, during which time he'd undergone three microdiscectomies and, less than two weeks after last year's Masters, lumbar fusion surgery.

One month after undergoing the latter, he was picked up by police in Jupiter - apparently asleep in his car - and found to have five drugs in his system, painkillers Vicodin and Dilaudid, the anti-anxiety medication, Xanax, a sleep aid, Ambien, and THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.

Scruffy

So, back then, the idea of completing even a scruffy round of golf at Augusta would have left Woods exultant.

But he came here, Pied Piper to a fairy tale. And, for Leishman and Tommy Fleetwood, most assumed the arrival of Tuesday's pairings had to feel like being told they'd encounter water cannon and tear gas as a complicating factor to their Masters challenge.

Leishman had only made two cuts in five previous appearances, albeit he did finish in a tie for fourth in 2013. Last year's was Englishman Fleetwood's first trip to Augusta and he didn't stay around for the weekend. Yet, the Australian seemed to take inspiration from the unfamiliar commotion around him with two birdies on the first three holes and another coming on seven to get to the turn at three-under, those four shots better than the marquee story.

It was dream stuff for Leishman who, around this time in 2015, spent three days at the bedside of his critically ill wife Audrey. He'd been called home suddenly while preparing for the Masters to find his wife on life-support with an estimated 5pc chance of survival.

What she'd assumed to be a minor head cold deteriorated rapidly into a diagnosis of toxic shock syndrome and sepsis and the need to place her in a medically-induced coma.

Audrey eventually made a complete recovery and was in Bay Hill last year when he won the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

For much of yesterday, Leishman's course management was way superior to that of Woods or Fleetwood, but the Augusta back nine is notorious for setting traps to the unwary.

In Leishman's case, that happened at 15 where he made the water to lose critical momentum for a 70.

Tiger, who opened with a tentative three-wood on the first, was reasonably sanguine after his 73, reflecting: "You know it was interesting, up and down for me today. Some opportunities to make some birdies and I didn't do it. Very sloppy at the par fives, which I can't afford to be.

"Sixteen has been good to me over the years and I needed that birdie. Looking at it now I definitely didn't score as well as I played. It's a good solid start and this is a very bunched leaderboard. At the end of the week, I think it's going to be pretty crowded. This course will test and I feel my prep has been good. It feels awesome to be back here and I feel I've a lot to work with."

Playing partner Fleetwood finished strongly with four birdies between 13 and 17 for level-par.

The Masters, live, Sky Sports, 7.0pm (3.0 red button)

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