AUGUSTA, Ga. – Golf used to be Tiger Woods and everybody else.
About the only thing they had in common was how they described fair-to-middling rounds afterward, how a handful of near-misses could have changed everything. The difference, of course, was that Woods would go out the next day, and the next, and make almost everything in sight.
Now he not only sounds like everybody else, he plays like everybody else, too.
"I hit a lot of beautiful putts today and they were just skirting the edge. So hopefully," Woods said after an opening round 71 at the Masters, "those will start going in."
No one knows exactly what went wrong with his game since a stunning fall from grace some 16 months ago, perhaps least of all, Woods. Think back to a year ago here, when he was first slinking back into the game after months in hiding and a series of botched apologies. Woods finished tied for fourth, watched rival Phil Mickelson slip into a green jacket, then moved onto the next major and came even closer to winning another U.S. Open himself. Everything went downhill after that.
On Thursday, just as Woods was finishing up a three-putt bogey at No. 10, Mickelson was getting ready for the short walk from the practice putting green to the first tee.
Leading the way, his caddie, Bones Mackay, was wearing white coveralls with the coveted No. 1 on the left side of his chest, and the roar built slowly as fans on both sides of the roped-off walkway howled and leaned in for a look at the defending champion. Lefty strode into the maelstrom, waving awkwardly with his gloved right hand and wearing that goofy smile, soaking in the unqualified adulation that Woods once enjoyed and would probably kill to have again.
By any measurement, Mickelson probably had the tougher year of the two, even with the Masters win. Just as his wife and mother were recovering from bouts of breast cancer, Mickelson was afflicted with psoriatic arthritis, a setback that required him to balance his medication, diet and conditioning routine and cost him the entire second half of the season. Despite a dozen chances to supplant Woods as No. 1 in the world, he came away empty-handed.
Somewhere in the middle of that slide, Mickelson talked candidly about how hard it was to concentrate fully on golf, an admission of vulnerability that only won him more fans and the kind of thing you would never hear from Woods. Long a fan favorite, after a victory in Houston last week, Mickelson came here as the betting favorite as well, a spot Woods owned the previous 12 years. Both Mickelson, currently ranked third, and Woods, seventh, could get the top spot in world rankings with a win here.
"It would really mean a lot if he was No. 1 when I passed him," Mickelson said Tuesday in a pre-tournament interview. "That would really be cool.
"But he and I both," Mickelson added, "have some work to do on our games."
The biggest change in Woods, outwardly at least, was hiring new swing coach Sean Foley. Signs of progress have been few and far between, which might explain why, when Woods rifled his tee shot into the rough right of the third fairway and arrived a few minutes behind it, half the spectators encircling his golf ball were emboldened enough to suggest how he should hit the next shot.
"Punch out sideways," one called out.
"Hit the stinger," another said.
Woods' caddie, Steve Williams, fixed the crowd with a stare, asked for quiet and then patiently told a camera crew and spectators near the end of the clearing to move to one side or the other. Woods, meanwhile, tested how much hacksawing the bush behind him would allow, then hunkered down over the ball. He sent a low iron shot skidding back into the fairway and over the green, following it with a nifty wedge shot to set up a tap-in par. The rest of his day went much the same way — up and down.
Afterward, when someone asked Woods, "Do you walk away thinking what could have been?" he blinked.
"No," Woods replied. "I'm very pleased. I'm right there in the ballgame. I'm only six back and as I said, we've got a lot of golf left."
Pushing the same theme, another reporter asked, "What do you do when putts don't go in? Do you go to the practice green and work on it?"
"Today is one of those days where I hit beautiful putts," Woods said. "I was hitting my lines and they just weren't going in. That's fine. Its not like I was pulling or blocking it. I felt real comfortable today."
Dozens of other guys came off Augusta National on Thursday and said almost the same thing. None was as good, or likely will be as good, as Tiger Woods was once. It seems fair to start asking whether Woods will ever be that good again, too.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org