AUGUSTA, Ga. — Everyone was smiling on Thursday at Augusta National.
Perhaps that shouldn’t have been a surprise. It was Masters Thursday, and for the first time in three years, that reality wasn’t accompanied by the many ways in which it would not, in fact, be Masters Thursday.
For the first time since 2019, there were no limitations on capacity, the golf course, or on belief. Augusta National was jam-packed, the pimento cheese sandwiches flowed freely, and the last two years were all but a distant memory. So the patrons smiled, the green jackets smiled, and even Tiger Woods smiled, too.
“He doesn’t normally do that,” Mike Tirico said on SiriusXM shortly after Woods’ downright cheery 71. “But there’s nothing normal about today.”
But actually, everything was normal about Thursday. It was the Masters just as we left it in April 2019, right down to Woods.
“Good morning ladies and gentlemen and welcome to Augusta National,” one security guard said to the masses streaming through the front gates on Thursday. “Where have y’all been? We’ve missed you.”
Perhaps the fans should have been asking the same question. But they weren’t, because they were too busy smiling (and because the line to the patron shop already reached halfway down the driving range).
These are things as they are supposed to be at Augusta National, and even mother nature agreed. As if preordained by Fred Ridley himself, the clouds parted just as Tiger stepped to the first tee box. The sky broke into a brilliant shade of blue, and by the time the final groups reached Amen Corner on Thursday, beams of sun cast golden shadows on the turf.
So those at Augusta National smiled, and they yelled, and they fist-pumped. Even when they didn’t know why they were smiling, yelling and fist-pumping.
“I didn’t see a damn thing,” one patron said mere seconds after delivering raucous applause for Cameron Smith’s birdie on No. 12. The patrons around him laughed, though they’d done the same thing.
Smith finished the day at four under, one stroke off the lead set by South Korea’s Sungjae Im. Of course, no Masters would be complete without a loaded leaderboard, which is good, because after Round 1, the names lurking near Im and Smith include World No. 1 Scottie Scheffler, Dustin Johnson, Patrick Cantlay and Woods.
Scheffler, who finished at three under, has never seen a “normal” Masters. His only starts came in 2020 and ’21. On Thursday, though, he earned a quick introduction to Augusta National scoreboard calculus.
“Yeah, it was definitely a lot different,” he said. “There was a lot more crowd noise. I think Tiger was a few groups in front of us, so we definitely heard some noise. One of [the roars] was actually Joaquin [Niemann’s] eagle on No. 9. We thought, oh, Tiger made a birdie, but it was Joaquin making an eagle.”
Niemann’s hole-out eagle was one of the highlights of the day at Augusta, and his three-under 69 might be the day’s second-most impressive round. The 23-year-old turned around an unusually good performance in the midst of Tiger-mania, besting his partner by two strokes despite some early communication difficulties.
“It was really fun. At the beginning I noticed that there was a lot of people,” he said with a laugh. “But then I was trying to talk to my caddie, and I couldn’t hear anything that he was saying.”
The crowd was deafening for Woods, too, but he didn’t seem to mind it much. On Thursday, the 15-time major champ played the type of round we’ve seen from him a dozen times over his 24 Masters starts. The only difference, it seemed, were the smiles, which not even Tiger could smother.
“I mean, the place was electric,” he said after his round with a grin. “I hadn’t played like this since ’19 when I won because in ’20 we had Covid and we had no one here, and I didn’t play last year. So, to have the patrons fully out and to have that type of energy out there was awesome to feel.”
It’s been a long time since things were normal. Long enough that somewhere along the way, we forgot what normal looked like. We found it again on Thursday.