Tiger sits 2 back of Masters leader

Updated: April 9, 2010, 10:09 AM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- So much for competitive rust.

For the first time in 16 appearances at the Masters, Tiger Woods opened the tournament by breaking 70, shooting a 4-under 68 to trail 50-year-old Fred Couples by 2 shots.

It was Woods' first round of tournament golf in 144 days after a highly publicized sex scandal that caused him to take a leave from the game.

That absence caused many to wonder just how well he could perform at one of the most exacting courses in the world, Augusta National.

But Woods shot his tournament lows for the first round both on the front nine and overall, had two eagles in a round for the first time, and even pulled off a remarkable ninth-hole hook shot around trees to set up a birdie.

"Very pleased," Woods said of his first official round of golf since winning the Australian Masters on Nov. 15. "I hit the ball well all day. … For the most part, I think I hit the ball well all day. And I just didn't make a lot of putts. If I putted well today, it could have been a really special round."

Woods needed 31 putts and had several lip-outs, keeping his round from being even better. He hit 14 greens in regulation and missed just five fairways.

"To be surprised by a guy who won a U.S. Open on one leg … you kind of stop being a little bit surprised," said Matt Kuchar, who played in Woods' group, referencing the No. 1 player in the world's 2008 U.S. Open victory at Torrey Pines.

After admitting he was nervous about the reaction he would receive from spectators when he played his first practice round Monday, Woods received a warm, although not boisterous, ovation as he approached the first tee.

"The people were just incredible, incredible all day," he said.

Although there were no negative incidents on the course, there were two planes that flew overhead pulling banners that referenced Woods' off-the-course transgressions.

Woods said he did not notice them, but, when pressed, said he was not surprised.

"It wouldn't be the first time," Woods said.

Woods began the round by launching a drive into the middle of the fairway and making par. His first birdie came at the third hole, his first bogey at the seventh.

Then things got interesting. Woods made just his second eagle ever at the par-5 eighth -- the last came in the fourth round last year -- and hit an amazing hook around the trees to set up a birdie at the ninth.

The 33 was his lowest front-nine score in the first round in his Masters career, which is in its 16th year.

Woods bogeyed the 10th, then missed a good opportunity for a birdie at the 12th and barely missed an eagle putt at the 13th. A poor approach to the 14th led to a bogey, but Woods hit two perfect shots at the par-5 15th, setting up another eagle putt, a 10-footer that he drained to get to 4 under.

"I expected to go out there and shoot something under par today," Woods said. "After looking at the scores, guys were just tearing this place apart."

No doubt, Augusta National yielded plenty of low numbers on opening day. There were 31 players under par, 16 of them in the 60s.

Woods finished in a tie for seventh, trailing Couples by 2 strokes, and 1 shot behind 60-year-old Tom Watson, Lee Westwood, Phil Mickelson, Y.E. Yang and K.J. Choi. He is tied with Anthony Kim, Nick Watney, Ian Poulter and Ricky Barnes.

Asked whether he was surprised to see Woods' name on the leaderboard, British Open champion Stewart Cink chuckled.

"Boy have we gone a long way now," he said. "No, I'm not surprised."

"No surprise at all," Steve Stricker said. "I figured he would come out and play well, and he'll be around come Sunday afternoon, I'm sure."

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

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com

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