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All in the game

Old, new find a place

Friday, April 09, 2010

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The new, fan-friendly Tiger Woods played a lot like the old one in his return to competitive golf Thursday at the Masters Tournament.

Fred Couples waves after his par putt on No. 18. The 1992 Masters champion shot 6-under 66 to move to first place on the leaderboard. (Andrew Davis Tucker/Special)

Tom Watson, revived by a spirited run in last July's British Open, could say the same thing.

But Fred Couples, who missed the cut in his past two appearances here and has a back that could go out at any minute, trumped them all.

Couples, a Champions Tour rookie, shot 6-under-par 66 while Watson had 67, as did Phil Mickelson, Y.E. Yang, K.J. Choi and Lee Westwood in one of the most memorable first rounds in years.

And Woods, who hadn't played a competitive round since November, shot 68, matching the score he shot in last year's final round, when he finished tied for sixth.

Also at 68 were Anthony Kim, Nick Watney, Ian Poulter and Ricky Barnes.

For Couples, the 1992 Masters champion, the 66 was the best round of his 26-year career at Augusta National Golf Club, which was there for the taking Thursday, with most of the tees moved up and the pins accessible.

Par-3 Contest winner Louis Oosthuizen starts his third competitive round at Augusta National. He missed the cut in his '09 debut. (Andrew Davis Tucker/Special)

Couples, 50, and the 60-year-old Watson proved Augusta National can still be a course for older men. And they weren't the only seniors to star. Champions Tour players and former Masters champions Sandy Lyle, 69, and Bernhard Langer, 71, also broke par.

"For me to be 6under and he (Watson) to be 5under, it's a great start for the older guys," Couples said. "I know Sandy Lyle played well, someone said, and so did Langer. It's course knowledge."

Couples challenged in the 2006 Masters, losing to Phil Mickelson. Had he won, Couples would have been the oldest Masters champ, passing 46-year-old Jack Nicklaus for the record.

Now Couples, who plays in tennis shoes without socks because of his tender back, is once again leading the Masters.

"To win Augusta at age 50 would be a pipe dream," Couples said. "Can I still win? Of course. It would be a nice dream, that's for sure, but I've got a lot of golf left to even think about being in contention. We'll see what happens tomorrow and Saturday and Sunday."

Woods, who played a practice round with Couples on Monday, wasn't surprised that his friend shot 66.

Anthony Kim had to hit from the gallery on the third fairway. Making his second Masters start, Kim would end the day with six birdies, four bogeys and an eagle on No. 13 in Amen Corner. (Andrew Davis Tucker/Special)

"He played just like that (on Monday)," Woods said. "I said if it was a tournament round, he would be in the top five. That was just on a Monday."

"Winning breeds winning," Woods said, referring to Couples' three Champions Tour wins this season. "Winning breeds a lot of confidence, and whether you win on a minitour, regular tour, senior tour, it doesn't matter. Wins just give you a lot of confidence if you can get it done. And you can see Freddie is just exuding that.''

Couples is enjoying his new life on the Champions Tour. Before his wins there this year, his last victory had been the 2003 Houston Open.

"I think my time has gone being on the regular tour," Couples said. "I think today was a great, great day."

He said his play Thursday was a carryover from how he's been doing on the 50-and-over circuit, especially his driving and putting.

"There's a little bit, something in the air, that I feel like I'm going to play well out there," Couples said of the seniors tour.

Jack Nicklaus points to show Arnold Palmer where his shot from the first tee landed. (Rainier Ehrhardt/Staff)

As riveting as Couples and Watson were, Woods kept the attention focused squarely on his play, and not his off-the-course misdeeds.

Playing like he never left, the 34-year-old Woods continued to win over patrons with his play and demeanor. The gallery soaked it up.

"The people, I haven't heard them cheer this loud in all my years here," Woods said. "It was incredible."

Woods showed little rust in his return to competitive golf, making three birdies and two eagles in his 68, his lowest first-round at the Masters by two shots. It could have been better, but he had 31 putts.

"Mentally, you have to get in the right spot and really take it (practice) seriously," said Woods, who'd never had two eagles in a round at Augusta National. "I didn't have the luxury of playing events coming into this tournament; other players did. My practice sessions had to be more intense than usual."

As had been the case during the practice rounds, Woods continued to interact with the gallery, giving two waves and a tip of the cap before he even reached the first green. His behavior had been a sore point with Watson, who said publicly that Woods should be more respectful of the game. On Thursday, the two-time champion bested Woods, despite its not being a vintage performance.

Watson missed five greens in a row on the back nine but saved par on all of them, keeping his round alive with his putter (24 putts). He didn't make a bogey.

The 67 tied Watson's best round in the Masters. Watson hasn't made the cut here since 2002,

"I think he's out here to win," said Watson's caddie and son, 27-year-old Michael Watson. "He's not out here to make the cut. He hasn't been that successful lately at the Masters and I think he wants to prove to himself and others that he may be able to make a run out here."

"My goal," Tom Watson said, "is to play better than I have in the past five or six years. And I achieved that in the first round."

"There are three more days and we're here to see if he can win this tournament," Michael Watson said.

And what does Tom Watson think of his chances for a third green jacket?

"I give myself a decent chance," he said.

Watson's under-par round was one of 31 Thursday, and 16 of those were under 70.

However, the scoring conditions could be tougher today; the forecast calls for a northwest wind, the toughest wind to play the course because Nos. 1, 13 and 15 play into the wind.

Reach David Westin at (706) 823-3224 or david.westin@augustachronicle.com.

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