AUGUSTA, Ga. - Technically speaking, Tiger Woods was not the one who faced the most pressure just by showing up on the first tee at the Masters Thursday. That distinction would go to Arnold Palmer, 85 and recovering from a dislocated shoulder, who was afraid of whiffing on his ceremonial opening drive.
Arnold got it out there just fine. He had something of which to be proud. And, all things considered, so did Woods. He stared down the chipping yips that had caused him to take a weird two-month hiatus from competitive golf, and he won.
His short game was just fine during his 1-over-par 73 in the first round at Augusta National. "It's my strength again," he said.
More than that, it showed that his mind, which always has been one of his greatest golf assets, is back in business. He blocked out bad memories and chipped close on No. 8 and made birdie. He chipped up and made par on No. 11, despite the fact that a skulled shot would have landed in the water.
"That's why I've busted my butt. That's why I took time off. That's why I hit thousands and thousands of shots, to make sure that it's back to being my strength. And it did," he said.
What he has to do now is prove that the rest of his game is good enough to make him a contender -- a real contender, not an incredible long shot who is tied for 41st and is nine shots out of first place. As a keen student of Masters history, Woods probably knows that no one has ever come back to win here after trailing by more than seven shots after the first round (Nick Faldo overcame a seven-stroke hole in 1990).
So take it with a grain of salt when Woods says, as he did last night, "You know, I'm still in it. I'm only nine back. And we have a long way to go."
Also, at least for this one day, just chalk it up to rust that he hit an unsightly snap hook off the ninth tee into the first fairway (which he had missed when he was playing the first hole). Let it slide that he followed the neat up-and-down on 11 with a water ball off the 12th tee. But after a drop, he hit a nice pitch close to save bogey.
For Woods, the important part was that he was playing again. He was demanding of himself. After his wayward tee shot on No. 15, he dropped his club and berated himself.
Thursday might be one of those days he will laugh about, decades from now, when he is a ceremonial starter the way Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player were during a whimsical but touching appearance at 7:40 a.m.
The Big Three made it a special occasion at Augusta. They showed respect for Augusta by humbly risking looking silly. Nicklaus said that Palmer wasn't joking when he acknowledged during the trio's news conference that his only thought was, "Don't fan it." Nicklaus said, "He said exactly the same thing to me."
Most impressive was the fact that defending champion Bubba Watson came out early just to watch those guys, as did Keegan Bradley and Rickie Fowler (whose tee time was six hours, 19 minutes later).
Bradley said, "I can't express it enough. I thought it was going to be cool and it was just times-10 of what I thought it would be. Then they came over to us and said how thankful they were for us coming out, which was crazy. It's something I'll remember for the rest of my life."
Woods is part of that same tradition fabric as the Big Three. There is no way to know what kind of career Woods will have from now on. At least he took a step toward having one.