Tiger Woods hits his tee shot on the second hole...

Tiger Woods hits his tee shot on the second hole during the first round of the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club on Thursday in Augusta, Ga. Credit: Getty Images/Rob Carr

Something about driving down Magnolia Lane and donning his champion’s green jacket when he arrives at Augusta National Golf Club lets Tiger Woods know he is home. The atmosphere is different at this November Masters, especially with no fans allowed because of the COVID-19 pandemic that forced postponement of the tournament, but in Thursday’s opening round, it was clear Woods still was riding the emotional high lingering from his fifth Masters win 19 months ago.

Englishman Paul Casey grabbed the first-round lead with a bogey-free 65 following a morning rain delay of nearly three hours that prevented play from being completed before darkness fell. Webb Simpson and Xander Schauffele, who tied for second behind Woods in 2019, both completed 5-under par 67s to tie for second. Justin Thomas was 5-under through 10 holes when play was suspended for darkness.

But Woods was the story as he carded a bogey-free 68 to join 2018 champion Patrick Reed and such high-profile veterans as Hideki Matsuyama, Louis Oosthuizen and Lee Westwood in the group at 68 along with Adam Scott, the 2013 champion, who was at 4-under when play was halted with Scott through 10 holes.

Woods has not played well since the PGA Tour resumed play in June, but his 68 matched his best-ever opening round at Augusta, marked only the second time he was sub-70 in the opening round and was his first bogey-free round in his past 106 rounds in the majors, dating back to the 2009 PGA. He was happy and relaxed, and it showed even though he missed the electricity provided by fans.

"To have this opportunity again to be able to play it, it was awesome to be out there," Woods said. "It is a very different world, but the fact we’re able to have a Masters and to have this opportunity to compete for a green jacket is pretty amazing."

Woods began his round on the 10th and had to get up and down to save par. But then he birdied the par-5 13th and 15th holes and hit it stone cold on the par-3 16th for another birdie. He reached 4-under with a birdie on No. 1 and finished with eight straight pars while hitting 15 of 18 greens in regulation.

"I drove it well, hit my irons well and putted well," Woods said. "There was really nothing I could have done better. Obviously, I could have made a few more putts, but…I missed all the putts on the high side."

Clearly, Woods tapped into a well of good feelings, starting with the speech he made Tuesday night at the champions’ dinner. Six-time champ Jack Nicklaus said it was "very emotional. I’ve never seen Tiger that way."

Three-time champion Gary Player added, "It was very heartwarming…He said he was on his way to the golf course, and he had to stop because he had tears in his eyes."

The 43-year-old Woods chalked up his fast start to the advantage his experience gives him, especially in terms of having learned how to play the course with many past champs. He cited Nicklaus, Raymond Floyd, Bernhard Langer and Fred Couples as examples of Masters winners who contended in their 40s and even 50s.

"Over the years, I’ve developed my own game plans and learned my own little nuances throughout the years," Woods said. "There is a sense of ease when I come here just because I understand how to prepare for this golf course.

"I did everything well today. There’s nothing that I feel like I did poorly. I’m looking forward to whenever I play [Friday]."

That’s the weird part about this Masters. Casey and all of the leaders who completed their first round on Thursday will go off mid-afternoon on Friday and not finish until Saturday morning, when the 94-man field is reduced to the low 50 and ties. Players who did not complete their round on Thursday, including world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, who was 3-under through nine holes, will start early Friday and then complete their second rounds in the afternoon.

No matter the circumstances, all the players are grateful to be at Augusta. Casey said it was a relief to pass his COVID test and tee it up. "The Masters still has a buzz to it," Casey said. "There’s something about this place…I felt excited to be here."

But no one is more excited than Woods.

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