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Tiger gives gallery taste of old magic

August 5, 2011

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— Until the 16th hole, the most striking thing about Tiger Woods’ first competitive round in 12 weeks was the silence.

His large gallery at Akron’s Firestone Country Club on Thursday didn’t explode over long-par saves on the third and ninth holes.

Devotees attending the first round of the Bridgestone Invitational probably didn’t know that his birdie at No. 10 was his first since the 15th hole on Sunday of the Masters Tournament on April 10, even as he tacked on another at No. 11.

They might have noticed he wasn’t wincing or limping, which had become common with the left knee and Achilles problems that had limited him to six previous tournaments in 2011. But there wasn’t any chatter about that, with Woods’ sweat-soaked pants and interim caddie Bryon Bell dominating their observations at the World Golf Championships tournament.

“I’d be a better caddie than that caddie,” a young man at the fifth tee said of Woods’ friend since the seventh grade. “He’s a nerdy guy. He’s like ‘A-squared plus B-squared equals driver.”’

But most of Woods’ faithful merely watched quietly and waited for magic.

After a bogey at No. 14, a flash of it finally came at No. 16, the 667-yard par-5. The hole known as “The Monster” encapsulated the state of Woods’ game during a 2-under round of 68 that left him six strokes behind leader Adam Scott.

When Woods’ drive strayed toward the right trees, he pulled out a fairway wood and hit a cut shot that sailed 269 yards and landed in the middle of the fairway short of the water, just 79 yards from the pin.

It seemed like the roar could have been heard downtown at Canal Park.

“I tell you, he’s going to be there on Sunday,” an older man told his friend.

“I smoked it,” Woods said. “I didn’t think I could get it that far down there.”

The “wows” had hardly died down when Woods hit a mediocre wedge to the back of the green.

“He’s been hitting every other shot good,” lamented another follower.

But Woods poured in a 30-foot putt for birdie to send the gallery into a frenzy again.

“I just got goose bumps,” said a man near the green. “I’ve never seen anything like that.”

After a solid but unspectacular round, there were smiles in the Woods camp, especially from agent Mark Steinberg.

Jason Day completed a 7-under 63 just as Woods was teeing off and wasn’t even escorted to the media center for an interview, because there was no one there. Scott’s round of 62 was 1 shot off the course record shared by Woods and Jose Maria Olazabal, but Scott’s line of questioning was more about his hiring of Woods’ recently fired caddie of 12 years, Steve Williams than his own play.

Some of the world’s best players, like Phil Mickelson, Lee Westwood and Luke Donald, are in the hunt. Young stars like Nick Watney, Day and Ryan Moore have a chance for a $1.53 million payday.

Yet this tournament will still be all about Woods and whether he’s really back.

The world has had its TMZ-fix with Woods. It has seen his marriage implode, watched his reputation shatter. Now it seems ready for its golf fix.

His greeting at the first tee was loud, but not massive considering the number of spectators. His first drive found the bunker, which subdued the crowd.

A man standing along the first fairway broke the silence.

“Let’s go, Tiger. It’s your house, baby, your house,” the man shouted. Striding down the fairway with his left leg finally pain-free, Woods looked over and nodded.

It seemed like a signal. Game on.

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