AUGUSTA, Ga. – After grazing one spectator with an approach shot at No. 2 and knocking a beer out of another's hands with a tee shot at No. 3, Tiger Woods managed to get around Augusta National without doing any further damage to himself or anyone else.
"Solid" was the word he used afterward to describe Thursday's opening-round 70, and it was as accurate as any. In fact, the biggest stir surrounding Woods on the course came when his significant other, Olympic ski champion Lindsey Vonn, hobbled down the first fairway with her injured right knee in a brace to watch him play, and then turned up later behind both the ninth and 18th greens to watch her man putt out. The photographers had a field day.
Vonn would be the daredevil half of just about any relationship. But her presence here served as one more reminder that for all of Woods' reckless behavior off the course in years past, he still knows how to play cautiously when the situation demands it.
He saved par on three of the first four holes with a trio of 5-footers, then steadied himself and carved three birdies out of the next eight holes. His only hiccup came at No. 14, where he read different breaks in the green from in front of the hole and behind it and "just didn't get committed to which way it was going to break."
But Woods sounded decisive and at ease during the few minutes he spent in front the microphones out on the lawn in front of the stately old clubhouse, and here's why: Three of his four green jackets came after shooting 70 in the first round, and this time it left him close enough to the lead and in a familiar position to conjure up some of the old magic.
"It's a good start," Woods said. "Some years, some guys shot 65 starting out here. But I'm only four back and I'm right there."
For all the spectacular golf he's played, it's worth remembering that all 14 of his major wins came when Woods teed off in the final round with the lead, or at least a share of it. His M.O. generally was to get off to a solid start, clamber his way up the leaderboard in rounds two and three and let his rivals take all the risks trying to catch him.
He's won that way three times already in five starts this season and inspired by that lightning-fast start, Nike put out another one of those in-your-face ads featuring Woods that boasts, "Winning takes care of everything." But the truth is that most of the 20-somethings who grew up imitating every facet of Woods' game and his training regimen haven't seen him win all that much lately, with zero majors since the 2008 U.S. Open. He's 0 for his last 8 at the Masters.
But flashes of the old Tiger have begun to reappear. He isn't pretending to be the chastened man who came back after the 2009 sex scandal laid him low, nor the petulant character who tossed clubs and curses around only last year. When Woods showed up for a pre-tournament interview earlier in the week, he was asked whether he would consider young Rory McIlroy his "main rival."
"I think that over the course of my career, I've had a few. You know, certainly Rory is this generation. I've had Phil (Mickelson) and Vijay (Singh) and Ernie (Els) and David (Duval) for a number of years, and now Rory's leading this new, younger generation.
"So, yes," he said, finally. "Definitely."
The most interesting thing about that answer is how it's constructed. Woods begins by listing the guys he's already smoked. Mickelson and Els are certainly capable of winning another major or two, but neither will be competitive nearly long enough to threaten Woods' career. Singh and Duval are already history.
McIlroy, who turns 24 in a few weeks, has two majors and has threatened here exactly once in five years. You might infer from the way Woods put the word "definitely" at the end of his answer that he still believes McIlory will suffer the same fate as the others — at least for the foreseeable future.
Of course, the only way that happens is if Woods backs up the tough talk by winning majors again. No less an expert than Jack Nicklaus, whose 18 career majors is the last milestone on Woods' parade through the record book, followed him into the interview room and said there was no time like the present to get back on track.
"Obviously, the older he gets and if he doesn't win, it makes my record move out further. But I've said it, and I continue to say it, that I still expect him to break my record. I think he's just too talented, too driven, and too focused on that. Now, a lot of you will say, he can't do that. ...
"From this point, he's got to win five majors, which is a pretty good career for most people to start at age 37. You know, he's still he's got to go do it. He's played very, very well this spring. ... But I think if he figures it out here, it will be a great boost for him. If he doesn't figure it out here, after the spring he's had, I think it will be a lot tougher for him."
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.