James Lawton: Tiger Woods fights his errant swing
Published 06/04/2012 | 09:18
If it is true, as we are so frequently told, that sport is just another mirror of life it was maybe appropriate that the first reflection of Tiger Woods here yesterday was seriously cracked. What he gave us was something deeply flawed — and it was never quite obscured by work which at times was hauntingly, well, almost jewel-like.
This shone in the Georgian sunshine with the promise of the deliverance he has been pursuing with growing confidence in the last few weeks and there was a huge temptation to believe that it had all been true, that the Tiger was back.
Unfortunately, it passed soon enough. In all, the swing that was supposed to have given him the impetus to resume his chase of Jack Nicklaus' record mark of 18 major titles failed five times, resulting in grotesque snap hooks which cost him three shots, two, dispiritingly, on the 17th and 18th holes.
That left him on even par – hardly disastrous at a stage of the tournament where even in the best of his days he tended to lurk rather than browbeat – but the true cost was in the palpable sense of a missed opportunity.
Not to lead in early running for a title he has already won four times – but in creating the sense that once more he might just be the man setting the agenda for an entire game.
"I'm ready," Woods tweeted to the world on the eve of the 76th Masters without quite specifying in what area he was most prepared.
We didn't have to speculate too long. If the spirit was strong enough, there were the most serious problems of technique. Over the first nine, which he finished at an encouraging one under, he landed on just two fairways. This was not the serene return to the centre of the golfing universe so many had anticipated.
It was the game's version of street fighting and these days it is a desperate business with which the Tiger is required to busy himself in a way that could never have been imagined before his game and his life began to unravel two and a half years ago. If he was to inflict himself on this tournament which he last won seven years ago, it would only be by the equivalent of house-to-house fighting and on the first holes there had to be shock at the shortfall between good, aggressive intentions and workable technique.
Yet there was clear evidence of a willingness to fight at the treacherously sloping third green. There, the Tiger went one under when he might easily have already been two shots adrift. This was a case of superior damage control through a start which even by his own haphazard standards on a first day here was reckless, to say the least.
Certainly, it revealed a disturbing gap between the rhapsodies of praise for his new swing coach, Sean Foley, and a performance on the first and second tees which seemed programmed more than anything else to bring on a nervous breakdown.
The Tiger's driver looked about as refined as a blunderbuss as he hooked hugely left on both occasions.
On the first tee the Tiger provided an instant bromide for those most filled with passion by his arrival in mid-morning.
It was even worse at the par-five second, when another hook landed in a creek and required a penalty drop. On both occasions the Tiger's body language was less than triumphant.
But, no, he wouldn't let go. Par was retrieved on both occasions and when he went one under at the third a roar of encouragement raced across the course.
There was another sickening mishap on the seventh when he hooked again and narrowly missed a bunker. His expression was filled with self-disgust and this deepened when his chip from the fringe could not prevent his first bogey.
This was not where he believed he was heading after surviving the threat of an outward half, which might easily have rivalled the one which came on the opening day of his first success here 15 years ago. Then he rocketed to 40, a potential disaster that required an astonishing touch which retrieved six shots on the back nine.
That is the kind of surge which, until not so long ago, was the trademark of the most overwhelming golfer the game had ever known and yesterday it was, when you considered all that had gone before, perhaps a little much to ask, especially, when you recalled his career tendency to labour on the first day, then work seriously to separate the rest of the field from any serious self-belief.
Between 1997 and 2002 it was a formula guaranteed to tear the heart out of all opposition. Yesterday he could only lament the loss of such a devastating touch and say: "I fought my way through the day even though I shot a few wild ones. I was pleased that I stayed committed and I'll take that attitude into tomorrow."
He birdied the eighth to return to the red and then, on the 10th which did so much to undermine his young rival Rory McIlroy last year, he at last produced shots of genuine authority. He played his approach shot quite beautifully, then drilled home the birdie putt with his old master's touch.
The crowd sent a message to Amen Corner that the Tiger was coming. It was maybe a little early to say precisely quite what shape he was in, but there had to be more than a touch of optimism.
He had, after all, avoided the threat of a most serious accident and there were indeed moments when he seemed willing to stand and fight with the kind of resilience that was last seen at its best when he won the 2008 US Open. He did that virtually, as an admiring McIlroy put it, on one leg.
Yesterday, there was no sign of physical discomfort. What you had to worry about was that latest crack in a once shining mirror.
Shot, shank, strides: Three of the best
Shot of the Day
It looked like it was going to be a catastrophic second hole for Tiger Woods, after he was forced to take a penalty shot after hooking the ball into the trees. But he recovered well after a long iron brought him close to the green, followed by a beautiful chip which allowed him to save par.
Shank of The Day
The veteran Sandy Lyle, Masters champion in 1988, made an awful start at Augusta yesterday. The 54-year-old Scot was three over after two holes following a woeful bogey and a double bogey. He was then nine over-par by the seventh hole following a triple bogey.
Outfit of the Day
What did you expect? He was never going to dress sombrely for the occasion. Ian Poulter, who also moonlights as a fashion designer, turned up for his first hole at Augusta yesterday sporting what can only be described as outrageous pink trousers bearing the Burberry check.
Facts in figures
69 Paul Lawrie's score, breaking 70 for the first time at the event.
1996 The year when a Briton last won the Masters – Nick Faldo for his third time.
290 Odds to one against Stenson available at the start of play.
2 Number of birdies by Tiger Woods in his first nine holes yesterday.
21 Tiger Woods' age when he first won the Masters in 1997.