Thursday, September 24

Tiger shows his claw at Masters return

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Woods back in business, so are Couples and Watson

AUGUSTA, Georgia: Tiger Woods is back in business after a five-month layoff to deal with a steamy sex scandal, but it was Freddie Couples and Tom Watson, with a combined age of 110, who set the pace as the Masters got underway Thursday.Woods was given a rousing welcome on the first tee when he finally emerged from a 144-day hiatus enforced by the exposure of his serial infidelity to wife Elin and he was quickly back in the groove, firing a four-under 68.

It was the first time he had bettered 70 in the opening round of the Masters in 16 attempts and it left him two strokes off the pace set by 50-year-old Couples, whose form this year on the senior Champions Tour has been nothing short of sensational, winning three of the four tournaments he has played in.

“The reception was incredible from the time I went to the putting green to putt, the range and back to the putting green, off to the first tee and pretty much all day, it was just incredible,” Woods said.

Watson, 10 years older than Couples at 60, was one of five players on five under 67 as he produced his best Masters round in 20 years.

Alongside him were European No.1 Lee Westwood, two-time former champion Phil Mickelson and South Korean pair K.J. Choi and Yang Yong-Eun, the USPGA champion.

Last week’s US PGA Tour winner in Houston, Anthony Kim, was a further stroke back level with Woods, England’s Ian Poulter and Americans Ricky Barnes and Nick Watney.

Woods smacked a perfectly judged drive down the first fairway after enjoying a warm welcome back from a packed gallery around the tee. He promptly parred the hole to get his quest for a fifth Masters title off to the perfect start.

What followed showed that if the family drama that engulfed him had, on his own admission, profoundly changed the way he saw life, Woods the golfer was as accomplished as ever.

Eagles at the eighth and 15th were the foundations of his round and there were clear signs that he intended to live up to his pledge to clean up his act on the course and show more respect to players and fans alike.

“I was just pretty calm all day,” he said.

“I felt that I was just trying to plod my way along and not throw away shots.

“I got into the flow of the round early. I got into the rhythm of just playing and hitting shots and thinking my way around the golf course.”

Couples was back to his non-chalant, care-free best as he reached the turn in 34 and then added four nore birdies on the back nine for a 66 and his lowest Masters score in 26 campaigns stretching back to 1983.

“Today was just one of those things — I putted well, driving it long and very straight — did ridiculously well out there,” he said.

“I never really thought about what I was shooting, although I was hoping to get to seven under at the last, but it was a fun day anyway.

“I stll think I can play. I know the course very well and if I play well I should shoot in the 60s.”

Watson’s performance belied his own repeated assertions that he was no longer competitive over the punishing Georgia parkland course.

The oldest player in the field and the 1977 and 1981 Masters winner, he made birdies at the first and third and then calmly parred the next 11 holes to stay at two under through 14 holes.

He then brought roars of approval as he added birdies at 15, 16 and 18 to bring back memories of his astonishing run at last year’s British Open where he lost out to Stewart Cink in a four-hole playoff afer missing an  eight-footer to win at the 72nd hole.

“I think a big part of my success today was having my son (Michael) on the bag,” he said.

“He said, ‘Dad, show me. Show me you can still play this golf course.’

“I wanted to show him I can still play this golf course.”

Westwood had seven birdies against two bogeys as he once again moved into contention to win his first major with what he said was the best round he had played yet over Augusta.

“That was a 67 that could have been a 64 or anything today,” he said.

“You go out here, every green in regulation, I missed 7 by about that far (indicating two feet) and 13 by that far away (an inch).

“Each time I missed it the right side. Eighteen greens in regulation around here, I don’t think people often do that.”

Mickelson was out in 35 but three birdies in a row from the 13th propelled him up the leaderboard and he narrowly missed an eight-footer at the last that would have put him clear.

“It was a good day. I played well. The greens were receptive which in this wind allowed a a lot of guys to make birdies. We saw some pretty low scoring,” he said.

“It’s a good start and my expectations are high.”

Joining the veteran stakes was 52-year-old, 1988 winner Sandy Lyle of Scotland who came in with a 69 — the first time he had ducked under 70 at Augusta since 1992.

History was made meanwhile at the other end of the age scale by Italy’s Matteo Manassero as he became the youngest player ever to take part in the Masters, 11 days shy of his 17th birthday.

The British Amateur champion birdied his first hole at Augusta National and, bearing a striking resemblence to the young Seve Ballesteros, he impressed by coming in with a one-under 71. — AFP