By Steve Keating
AUGUSTA, Ga. (Reuters) -Tiger Woods began his highly-anticipated return to competition with a par on his first hole at the Masters on Thursday in front of a throng of patrons thrilled to see the five-time champion back.
Woods, wearing a pink shirt and black pants on his return to the Masters following a February 2021 car crash, was greeted at the par-four 445-yard first hole to a raucous reception from spectators who arrived at Augusta National in the early-morning hours to get a front-row seat.
In his first competitive round of golf in 508 days, Woods sent his opening tee just short of the fairway bunker, watched his approach trickle off the front of the green and then chipped to 10 feet before saving par.
Woods’ accident, which nearly resulted in doctors amputating his right leg, cast serious doubt on his professional golfing future but the 15-times major champion said earlier this week that he feels like he can still compete at the highest level.
If Woods, 46, can pull off the unthinkable with a win this week he would become the oldest Masters champion by three weeks over 18-times major winner Jack Nicklaus, who collected his record sixth Green Jacket in 1986.
Defending champion Hideki Matsuyama, who last year became the first Japanese man to win a major championship, was playing in the group behind Woods along with world number seven Justin Thomas and James Piot, who is one of six amateurs in the field.
Rory McIlroy, who needs a win this week to complete the career Grand Slam, is due to go out in the day’s final group at 2:33 p.m. ET (1833 GMT) while former champions Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson and reigning U.S. Open champion Jon Rahm were also among the late starters.
The start to the year’s first major was delayed 30 minutes due to early-morning thunderstorms but the added wait could not dampen the excitement around Augusta National, which had its usual full house after two years of COVID-19 restrictions.
Festivities began at 8:15 a.m. ET when honorary starters Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tom Watson, who have a combined 35 major titles between them, got the year’s first major underway with their ceremonial tee shots.
Watson, making his first appearance as a Masters honorary starter, addressed the crowd as he approached the first tee where he spoke about what it meant to be part of a tradition that includes Arnold Palmer, Gene Sarazen and Byron Nelson.
“May I say something?,” the 72-year-old Watson said. “I would like to say how honoured I am to be with Gary and Jack.
“I watched this ceremony many times in the past … to be a part of this thing I am truly humbled.”
(Reporting by Steve Keating; Writing by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Toby Davis)