Masters favourite Tiger Woods gets down to some serious business
In all the overheated circumstances they might have played "Eye of the Tiger" when he came to the first tee. But then you probably had to scour the most distant pine forests to find someone unaware he was back.
Yes, he was back to a significant degree – his round of two-under left him in a prime position of lurking behind the leaders at the end of the first day. It was in that classic way of his triumph here 16 years ago when he returned precisely the same score. There is, it is true, one diverging detail. Back when the golf world was entering into a state of shock, the young Tiger Woods came back in a searing 30.
He declared, "It was a good day, a solid day. I hit the ball really solid and lag-putted pretty good. It was a good start and I'm right in there."
Woods fought himself into the red of the leader board and the surest understanding that he was about his most serious business in the years since his empire and his existence seemed to be falling apart.
He was punching his weight again, the world's most decorated active golfer boiling for a fight with anyone resisting his attempt to land his first major title in five years on top of his restored No 1 world ranking. Quite suddenly, though, you also saw the pressure heaped upon him with the mostly rock-hard assumption that the hiatus of ravaged confidence and dwindling technique was officially over.
Eventually it surfaced on the back nine when he missed two opportunities to sink the kind of putts which were the staples of his long years of absolute dominance. However, there will still plenty of reasons to believe that if the very best of his days have not yet returned, the worst of them are surely over.
He came in with the swagger of a pugilist, to rapturous applause, but when he stepped forward on the tee you could almost hear a huge collective intake of breath.
For many the essential story might have been over, at least in the broad sweep of it, but for the Tiger it was just beginning. You can't talk your way to redemption, not to the level he once enjoyed, and nor can you do it outside of the majors. That is where Woods once lived permanently in his psyche and his bearing and now, at 10.45 on a cool Georgian morning, he had to reclaim the territory.
So naturally he came bristling into the action. On that first tee he seemed about to throw an imaginary blow. Instead, he almost perfectly dissected the first fairway, predictably outdriving one of the usurpers of his ranking in the worst days of his crisis, Luke Donald. The Tiger's three-wood covered 310 yards and might have been plotted by a computer. His second shot left him 20 feet from the pin, which is the kind of distance the first, unbeatable Woods used to knock in while almost asleep.
Tiger Mark Two, stronger, they say, at the broken places, wiser about the world and with regained control of his extraordinary talent, may never again enjoy quite such relentless spontaneity and certainly his putt was short of that brilliant, pristine conviction. Still, it was good enough to make the par a formality.
After his discipline at the first, Woods teetered close to breakdown on the par-five second. His second shot landed in the gallery and from that point he had to fight hard for par. However, his effort was strong enough for the task – as it was for the challenge of recovering from a wayward tee shot on the third. The Tiger's drive went left but his recovery was again tenacious.
The galleries were intense and noisy and at one point they included the great football coach, Pep Guardiola.
As his old team Barcelona fight for survival in the Champions League, and the Bayern one he inherits in the summer find new levels of authority, Guardiola must have found this vital phase of Woods' fight for renewal quite fascinating. It was about the maintenance of self-belief and superior skill levels in the most pressing conditions.
His rituals had never brought quite such instant hush, even reverence and there were no such bellowing excesses as "Tiger, you the man". The question was whether he could indeed regain that status in the place he dominated so profoundly when he won that first Green Jacket here as a 21-year-old.
The Canadian coach Sean Foley had insisted that his man was now firmly in charge of his own desinty. "He has worked very hard to get back to where he is now. He's had a lot of pressures but once his injuries cleared up he has given the challenge facing him tremendous dedication. He knew what he had to do and he was aware of the pressures that were coming to him, and which have started here this week. I haven't had any doubt that he is equal to them."
For the Tiger there was the necessity to guard his situation with absolute care. If the squalls that overtook him so quickly, and often blew him off course quite fatally at this level, have dwindled, they have not quite disappeared and indeed he showed extraordinary levels of watchfulness as he parred his way to the sixth tee.
Then he struck on the sixth, landing a birdie and sending the message to every corner of the course that here was not so much a round of golf but a battle to regain much that had been lost – and in the opinion of so many perhaps irretrievably.
He birdied again at the eighth, another strike that sent him into the back nine and towards the perils of Amen Corner with the step of a man who had gained a serious foothold in a vital task.
As he walked down the 11th fairway he exchanged a joke with his playing partner Scott Piercy. Suddenly, there was a looseness in his stride. The challenge had been engaged without recklessness, without any sense that it might suddenly crumble once again.
There was so much more to do, of course, but so far the Tiger had been as good his word. He had, after all, said that he had come here to do more than win a title. He had arrived to continue the rebuilding of both his golf and his life and now no one could say that he wasn't bringing all he had to the job. It seemed to be, you had to say, quite a lot. However, perhaps no one needed to tell him that rather more will be needed over the next three days.
Belfast Telegraph Digital