Round one Masters blog: Woods can still play…but so can Couples and Watson

April 08, 2010 | Drew Forrester

I didn’t see the script for the 2010 Masters, but I assume the writer wanted drama right from the very beginning.

Day one is in the books at Augusta and there are gobs of great storylines drifting through the Georgia pines after 18 holes of play.  1992 champion Fred Couples strolled his way around in just 66 shots, his lowest Augusta round ever, and looks very much like someone who will be in the hunt throughout the weekend if his putter continues to cooperate.  One shot behind are the likes of Phil Mickelson, Y.E. Yang, K.J. Choi, Lee Westwood and the day’s other great story, 60-year old Tom Watson.  Only one player in the field managed a bogey-free round on Thursday…and it was Watson, who nearly won the 2009 British Open and showed again on day one at Augusta that course knowledge and accuracy off the tee are critical to success at the Masters.

And then there’s Tiger Woods, who returned to competitive golf on Thursday and toured the Augusta layout in 68, including a pair of eagles and several mammoth tee shots that showed anyone who thought otherwise that his golf swing is well oiled and rust free.  Only a handful of putts that creased the hole and stayed out kept the 4-time Masters champ from posting a 65 or better.  He was around the hole all day long.

My pre-tournament pick, Jim Furyk, started out 2-under par and then decided to play like the 3rd place finisher in his A Flight club championship, posting an 8-over par round of 80.

Scoring was the name of the game on Thursday.  While anyone who posted 74 or better is easily still within striking distance over the next 54 holes, it’s looking more and more like a score of -12 will the minimum requirement for victory on Sunday.  And with good weather sticking around in Augusta for the next three days, don’t be surprised if -14 or more winds up being the winning total.

That means – of course – guys who can make birdies and reach the par 5’s in two for possible eagle chances are going to be the ones to watch over the next three days.  Advantage Woods, Mickelson and, perhaps, two of the young guns at -4 who bomb it off the tee…Anthony Kim and Nick Watney.

Mickelson’s under-the-radar round of 67 puts him in great position to collect a third green jacket.  The tournament committee did him a favor, I believe, by giving Phil the opposite tee-time draw of Tiger.  That gives Mickelson the chance to operate without having to worry about what Woods is doing at the moment…and by the time he tees off on Friday mid-day, he’ll know what Tiger’s doing in his second round, as Woods tees off at 10:35 am in round 2.

All eyes will remain on Woods, naturally, but he put any whispers of “can he still play?” to rest on the very first tee on Thursday when he ripped a drive up the left side, knocked his approach to 12-feet, and just missed making birdie in his return to the real world.  By day’s end, no one was wondering whether or not the 144-day layoff would affect Tiger’s competitive zeal.  He’s back.  He even reacted poorly to a bad shot or two, thus letting everyone know his quest to “improve his behavior” still needs some fine tuning.  Then again, when you pull a shot 20 yards left of the 14th green from 164 yards out, you probably should throw a small tantrum.  Right?  Right.

So day one is in the books at Augusta and it featured just about anything and everything a golfing fan could want.

A wildly popular former champion – Couples – is in the hunt and will probably hang around in this one as long as his putter continues to oblige him.  One of yesterday’s heroes – Watson – reminded us all that the grip-it-and-rip-it club needs the occasional lesson in course management and he provided just that for everyone on Thursday.  Mickelson – with his wife Amy battling breast cancer – continues to be one of the game’s most consistent performers in major championships and is as likely to win this event as anyone right now.  And Woods – with his reputation destroyed over the last four months – began the process of trying to rebuild his life and golfing legacy by looking BETTER than he did this time last year.  If nothing else, that shows us all something about how Tiger’s life has changed.  A year ago this time, he was clearly involved in some questionable personal deeds and failed to win at Augusta for the 4th straight year.  Today, he posted 68 and let everyone know he is, indeed, on the comeback trail.

Somewhere right now, the folks at ESPN and CBS are buying the script writer a drink or two.

The next three days are going to be great for golf.