Commentary

Going low seems a thing of the past at Augusta National

Updated: April 10, 2008, 9:27 PM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Strangely, even Tiger Woods gets nervous. Not shaking-in-his-spikes nervous, not sweat-pouring nervous. But there were butterflies floating beneath those six-pack abs, and plenty of evidence on the scorecard to suggest that Thursday's first round at the Masters was anything but a leisurely stroll for the four-time champ.

Augusta National is not the birdie haven it once was for Woods, who famously cruised to a 12-shot victory 11 years ago when he set the tournament scoring record at 18 under par.

Nowadays, it is an exacting test, a fine line between birdies and bogeys, and Woods walked that treacherous tightrope during an opening 72 that he felt should have been much better and left him four strokes behind leaders Justin Rose and Trevor Immelman.

In fact, there was a time when it appeared his Grand Slam quest could be halted before it ever really got started. Woods was 2 over par through 14 holes and had not made a birdie.

In fact, he hasn't made a birdie in his last 34 holes at Augusta National. He's made four bogeys and two eagles since the second hole of last year's final round.

Tiger's Tale At Augusta

For the seventh time in his career, Tiger Woods started play at the Masters with at least two wins on the season. He's done that each of the last four years and has been in the top three at Augusta in the past three years. Woods hasn't won at Augusta since 2005.

Tiger Woods Entering Augusta
Last Four Seasons
Year Wins Before Masters Masters Finish
2008 3 ???
2007 2 T-2nd
2006 2 T-3rd
2005 2 1st

"You're always nervous every time you tee it up," said Woods, who continued an amazing streak that has never seen him break 70 during the first round here in 14 trips to the Masters. "If you're not nervous, that means you don't care. So why play? I care about what I shoot and how I play. I take great pride in what I do. So yeah, you're going to be a little bit nervous, and that's a good thing."

Perhaps that explains why Woods was unable to get up and down from in front of the second green for a birdie. Or why he couldn't get it close to the par-4 third hole after a big drive. Or why he three-putted from the fringe at the par-5 eighth.

Woods was still even par when he hit what he believed to be a perfect 4-iron second shot to the par-5 13th.

"I thought it was sweet," he said. "Just hit a big sweeping draw in there, one of the best swings I made all day."

The ball landed pin high -- and promptly skipped over the back of the green. "And I left myself the hardest pitch you could possibly have on this golf course," he said.

Woods tried to pitch the ball onto the top shelf, but saw it roll back to him, leading to a bogey on a hole where he felt he'd have an easy birdie. Another bogey followed at the 14th and suddenly all that Grand Slam talk seemed silly.

But then, as Woods often does, he pulled off a big shot at the 15th, where he chipped in from over the green for an eagle. He lipped out a birdie putt at the 16th, made a good par at the 17th, and finished where he started at even par.

"I kept myself in the tournament," he said. "I'm right there. With the weather supposed to be getting more difficult as the week goes on, I'm right there."

Working in Woods' favor is the fact that nobody with the first-round lead has gone on to win the Masters since Ben Crenshaw in 1984. Making things more difficult, however, is the fact that going on a birdie binge -- as he is wont to do -- appears far from easy here.

The world's No. 1 player suggested the course is playing more like a U.S. Open venue.

"There's really no roars out there anymore because it's hard to make the eagles and the big birdies," he said. "The golf course is playing so much more difficult now being longer, and it has dried out this week. As the week has gone on it's gotten drier and it's going to get more that way toward Sunday."

Tiger-proofed?

That is not to suggest moments of brilliance were lacking. Rose, who was 2 over par through four holes, played his last 13 holes in 6 under. Immelman had four birdies and no bogeys. Defending champion Zach Johnson made a birdie at the 13th by knocking a wedge on the green and converting the putt. And Ian Poulter had a hole-in-one at the 16th hole -- one of just three eagles on the day.

Then there was Phil Mickelson. While Woods was lamenting what could have been, Mickelson, the world's No. 2-ranked player and two-time Masters champion, got a couple of favorable bounces.

The first came at the very first hole, where he hit a poor drive, missed the green, then chipped in for birdie. Mickelson came up short at the par-5 13th, but his approach stayed out of Rae's Creek. He took advantage of his good fortune by getting up and down for a birdie and ended up with 71.

"The conditions are perfect," Poulter said. "You can't want for better golfing conditions. You know, Augusta National is a tough golf course, wherever the pins are located or whether the tees are up 10 or 15 yards. You have to hit it in the right spot to give yourself a chance. You don't need to hit too many stray shots out there to get yourself in trouble. It's a credit to the golf course. It's difficult."

"The pin placements today were very good, very difficult," Johnson said. "I can think of a number of pin placements that were borderline Sunday pins, and ones you really had to pay attention to on your approach shots."

If anything, Thursday offered another example of why the notion of winning any tournament, let alone all four major championships, is so difficult to wrap your arms around.

Woods has embraced it all year, saying the Grand Slam is "easily within reason." And yet, all it takes for that dream to die is a day of ordinary chipping or substandard putting. Or poor weather. Or a bunch of other guys who find their groove at just the right time.

There was certainly no panic in Woods' voice, even though 18 players are ahead of him.

"I feel good about how I played all day," he said. "I hit the ball really well. I hit a lot of good putts that just didn't go in. That's just the way it goes. I've just got to stay patient out there and hopefully it'll turn."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com