AUGUSTA, Georgia — Tiger Woods followed his first victory in 28 months with some of the worst tee shots of his career, struggling to a level-par 72 after the opening round of the 76th Masters on Thursday.
Snap-hooking drives into the pine trees at Augusta National with alarming regularity, Woods stunningly salvaged pars on the first two holes only to suffer a bogey-bogey finish to plunge off the leaderboard.
“I hit some of the worst golf shots I have ever hit out there,” Woods said. “I just grinded my way around the course, stayed patient, whatever it took. I just wanted to keep going out there.”
The 14-time major champion, chasing the all-time record 18 majors won by Jack Nicklaus, seeks a fifth Masters title and 73rd US PGA crown in his first event since ending a win drought that started with his infamous sex scandal.
“I could have probably maybe got one, maybe two more [shots]out of that but that was about it,” Woods said. “I squeezed a lot out of that round. Didn’t hit it very good at all.”
But Woods took heart from the fact no rival pulled too far ahead of the pack.
“This course is playing too difficult to go super-low on,” Woods said. “No one was tearing it up.”
Woods captured the Arnold Palmer Invitational last month at Bay Hill and seemed to signal a return to form, but admitted that old mistakes were creeping back into his swing during the round.
“Old [swing] patterns. Just old patterns,” Woods said. “Some of my old stuff from a few years ago. I have had to work through it and today it popped up. Now I’m struggling with it all the way around with all the clubs.”
Woods, who has not won a major title since the 2008 US Open and has not won the Masters since 2005, could match Nicklaus for second on the US PGA all-time win list at 73, nine shy of the record 82 won by Sam Snead.
Spaniard Miguel Angel Jimenez, a playing partner of Woods, fired a 69 to share to clubhouse lead and said he thought Woods played well other than off the tee, where he was among the day’s worst players at finding fairways.
“He had trouble from the tees,” Jimenez said. “If you miss fairway you don’t have a chance. The rest he was fine. He was playing very well. If you are not well off the tee, you are not able to find your place here.”
Woods said he was “Feeling ready,” in a two-word Twitter posting only hours before his round began, but he appeared anything but prepared.
His inaugural shot hooked left off the first tee, smacked a pine tree and rolled halfway back down the hillside toward the players, coming to rest in the pine needles.
Woods blasted out of the mess 10 yards short of the green, pitched to eight feet and sank the par putt.
Another narrow escape followed.
Woods sent his tee shot at the par-5 second even more left, deep into a set of bushes near a pedestrian path. He took a penalty and dropped near a tree, then smashed a shot through small tree branches and leaves that landed short of the green.
Woods, ranked seventh in the world, went up and down from there for another clutch par save even as spectators still scrambled through the bushes seeking a souvenir.
“That was about as good as it got,” Woods said of the par saves.
Woods found the fairway and green at the third and sank an eight-foot birdie putt to reach the leaderboard, staying there after a bogey at seven and birdies at the par-5 eighth and par-4 10th.
Woods found a bunker beyond the green at the par-5 13th and parred his way through Amen Corner, but bogeys at 17 and 18 after bad tee shots blunted any notions of challenging for the lead.
“I really stayed committed to what I was doing. I made some bad swings,” he said. “I can take some positives going into tomorrow about that. At least I have something to build on.”