Masters: Tiger Woods shoots one under as Im Sung-jae leads on day one

-5 S-J Im (Kor); -4 C Smith (Aus); -3 D Willett (Eng), J Niemann (Chi), D Johnson (US), S Scheffler (US); -2 J Kokrak (US), C Conners (Can), P Cantlay (US)
Selected others: -1 T Woods (US), W Zalatoris (US), M Fitzpatrick (Eng); E H Matsuyama (Jpn), L Westwood (Eng), V Hovland (Nor); +1 R McIlroy (NI); +2 J Rahm (Spa), J Spieth (US)

Tiger Woods shot a one-under-par 71 on his Masters comeback as the five-time champion made a stunning return to competitive golf in what he described as an “electric” atmosphere at Augusta.

Woods, 46, suffered life-threatening injuries in a car crash 14 months ago, then feared his leg might be amputated.

The 15-time major champion confirmed on Tuesday he planned to play and looked sharp in Thursday’s opening round.

South Korea’s Im Sung-jae, runner-up in 2020, leads after a five-under 67.

“There is a long way to go, it is a marathon, but it is nice to get off to a positive start,” Woods said after playing his first competitive round in 508 days.

Asked whether being able to play felt like a victory after the severity of his injuries, Woods replied: “Yes. To see where I’ve been, to get from there to here, it was no easy task.

“I’m very lucky to have this opportunity to be able to play, and not only that, to play in the Masters and to have this type of reception.

“I mean, the place was electric.”

The opening day was delayed by half an hour because of overnight thunderstorms, with testing windy conditions in the morning making way for a calmer afternoon in the sunshine.

One of the later starters, 24-year-old Im, began with three birdies and added another on the seventh to hit 32 on the front nine.

Successive bogeys on 10 and 11 pegged him back before an eagle on 13 and a birdie on 15 put him one shot ahead of Australia’s Cameron Smith.

Smith, going for a rare prestigious double after winning the Players Championship at Sawgrass last month, was the early clubhouse leader after an extraordinary four-under 68 that started and finished with double bogeys.

England’s Danny Willett, who earned a shock win at the Masters in 2016, American world number one Scottie Scheffler, 2020 champion Dustin Johnson and Chile’s Joaquin Niemann are one shot behind Smith after 69s.

Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy began his latest bid for a clean sweep of the four men’s majors – the 32-year-old’s eighth attempt to complete the career Grand Slam – with a 73.

Woods impresses in a round few thought they would see again

When Woods crashed while speeding in Los Angeles in February 2021, the shocking images of his overturned car at the side of the road left his millions of admirers around the world fearing his golf career was over.

Woods spent three months in a hospital bed following the single-vehicle accident, in which he hit a tree at approximately 75mph and was later found to have been driving at almost twice the legal speed limit.

That he has been able to return to health is remarkable, let alone resume a glittering career in which he has won 15 men’s majors, second only to Jack Nicklaus.

In February, Woods made it clear he thought the hilly terrain at Augusta National would come too soon in his recovery.

Yet as Masters week approached, speculation increased he was planning to play if he came through his practice rounds unscathed.

“I am proud of my whole team,” said Woods. “People have no idea how hard we worked each and every day. We never took a day off.”

Vast numbers watched him practise at the iconic Georgia course on Monday, creating a celebratory atmosphere as the preeminent star of the sport continued his bid to make an astonishing comeback.

The moment Woods walked out on to the first tee on Thursday was even more special.

Huge cheers greeted his name being read out as thousands gathered to watch his opening shot. Despite his drive turning out to be wayward, it did not dampen the mood as Woods was cheered down the first fairway.

Packed galleries continued to greet him around the course.

Practice partners Justin Thomas and Fred Couples had talked up the level of Woods’ game, with the former world number one saying it was the physicality of getting around 72 holes which would be his biggest challenge.

Technically, he looked very good. Starting with five pars, he put his tee shot on the par-three sixth to within a few feet and knocked in the birdie amid more rapturous scenes.

A poor chip and putt from the side of the eighth green led to a bogey, before he moved back under par with a birdie on the par-five 13th after reaching the green in two.

More sloppiness around the 14th green led to another bogey, but a brilliant two on the par-three 16th ensured he would finish under par in his first competitive round since the 2020 Masters, which was held in November.

“I hadn’t played in an atmosphere like this since 2019 when I won because in 2020 we had Covid and we had no-one here, and I didn’t play last year,” added Woods.

“So to have the patrons fully out and to have that type of energy out there was awesome to feel.”

McIlroy scraps as Willett shines

With all the attention on Woods, McIlroy said he felt less pressure at Augusta this year as he again bids to become only the sixth man to win the Masters, Open, US Open and US PGA Championship.

But McIlroy – who has not claimed victory at one of the four majors since 2014 – finished over par as he paid the price for some inaccurate approach play over the closing holes.

That was typified by his tee shot into a bunker on the par-three 16th, leading to a dropped shot. He also pushed his second shot into a bunker at the 18th, but brilliantly recovered with a delicate splash out of the sand and a clinical putt for par.

“I feel like it was the worst I could have shot today. I feel like I played really, really well,” McIlroy said.

“I’m encouraged with how I played so I’ve just got to try to get more out of the round tomorrow.”

Moments after McIlroy’s round finished, two-time major champion Tony Jacklin tweeted to urge the former world number one to “relax and enjoy yourself” when he looks to close the gap on the leaders on Friday.

McIlroy’s English playing partner Matt Fitzpatrick sunk a 20-foot putt on the last, enabling him to card a 71 after a consistent round that included just one bogey.

England’s Willett has struggled to hit the same heights since his memorable Masters win six years ago, but says he is “trending nicely” after his best opening round at Augusta.

The 34-year-old from Sheffield, who has not yet recorded a top-30 finish in 2022, carded five birdies and two bogeys in his 69.

“The body’s good and this place lends itself to the certain golf shots that we’ve been trying to work on and trying to hit,” he said.

“It doesn’t mean you’re going to hit them obviously, but it’s always nice when the kinds of things you’ve been working at pay off.”

How did the rest of the Britons get on?

England’s Lee Westwood and Tyrrell Hatton carded level-par 72s, while Scotland’s Robert MacIntyre, who finished 12th on his debut last year, shot a 73.

English pair Tommy Fleetwood (+3) and Justin Rose (+4) could face a battle to make the cut after disappointing opening rounds.

English amateur Laird Shepherd, who qualified after producing an amazing comeback to win the Amateur Championship, finished nine over on his debut.

Scotland’s 1988 champion Sandy Lyle, 64, props up the 90-man field after shooting an 82.

England’s Paul Casey pulled out of the tournament shortly before he was due to tee off on Thursday because of a back injury.

Casey, 44, finished third in the Players Championship but suffered back spasms during the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play last month.

“The back issues are persistent and thus preventing me from being able to compete,” he said.

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