Returning from a five-month layoff and trying to rebuild his reputation after a sex scandal, Tiger Woods quickly showed his game was still in good shape at the Masters on Thursday.
Woods made two eagles in one day for the first time in a Masters round on his way to a 4-under-par 68 - his best first-day score ever at a tournament he's won four times. He had never started with a score lower than 70 until Thursday, when he put himself just two strokes behind the surprising leader, 50-year-old Fred Couples.
"Why play if you don't think you're going to win?" Woods said. "If I don't think I can win, I won't enter the event."
The world's No. 1 player is off to a good start for his fifth green jacket, and his score could have been even lower. He lipped out four putts.
Still, no complaints after being away from the game so long and enduring plenty of ridicule over his personal life, which fell apart after a Thanksgiving night car crash led to revelations of multiple extramarital affairs.
Even so, he heard nothing but cheers from the Augusta National fans.
"It was unbelievable, the whole day," Woods said. "The people, I haven't heard them cheer this loud in all my years coming here. It certainly helped keep my spirits up."
Woods rolled in eagle putts at the eighth and 15th holes. That pushed his score to 4 under and left him just two strokes off the lead despite not having played for five months. He nearly made another eagle at 13, but the putt lipped out.
Veteran Fred Couples shot a four-under back nine to take the first day lead at six-under. Phil Mickelson 60-year-old Tom Watson - posting another turn-back-the-clock round - were among those tied for second at 5-under 67.
But all eyes were on the world's best player during one of the most scrutinized opening rounds in golf history.
No one was sure what to expect from Woods, competing for the first time since a November night car wreck led to revelations of numerous extramarital affairs. But a 3-under 33 on the front side certainly answered the question on everyone's mind: How would he play?
Woods bounced back from his first bogey with two precise shots that set up a 10-footer for eagle at the par-5 eighth. When the ball dropped in the cup, patrons rose in unison to salute the disgraced golfer, who delivered his first fist pump of the day.
But this round likely will be remembered for a shot Woods pulled off at the next hole. He yanked his drive left of the fairway, leaving him with a treacherous 5-iron that had to be hooked around the pine trees to reach an uphill green he could barely see.
Woods ripped into the ball with a powerful swing, then ran out into the fairway to get a look as it skidded onto the green, pulling to a stop about 12 feet above the hole. He rolled in the birdie putt, which put him on the leaderboard for the first time, just two strokes behind.
Coming out of the clubhouse, Woods bogeyed the 10th to fall back to 2-under. He birdied at 13 but gave back the shot with a bogey on the next hole. But a resurgent Woods nabbed his second eagle of the day at 15 to draw within two shots of the lead.
The gallery around the first tee was sparse a half-hour before Woods was scheduled to start. By the time he arrived, it had swelled to 10 deep all the way round. Woods smiled and touched the brim of his cap, acknowledging the cheers when his name was announced.
Though there were plenty of cheers for Woods, a small plane flew overhead pulling a banner with a catty word play on Buddhism, his religion, in reference to the scandal.
Flashing a smile at the opening tee, Woods hit his opening drive into the fairway and put his second shot within about 15 feet of the cup, but his birdie attempt curled just wide.
About the time Watson was finishing, Woods took another par at No. 2, knocking his second shot over the green, against the edge of a bunker. A high wedge didn't spin back as much as he would have liked, and a testy downhill putt for birdie wasn't close.
But he bounced back at No. 3, the shortest par-4 hole on the course. Woods knocked his second shot to 5 feet and rolled in the birdie.
"Make us proud!" a fan yelled.
Woods was in the next-to-last group, playing with K.J. Choi and Matt Kuchar. There was some question whether there would be a rain delay as skies darkened and the wind gusted up to 22 mph ahead of an approaching storm front.
Three straight pars followed Woods' birdie before the first stumble: an errant drive at No. 7 led to a bogey that knocked him back to even par. But that was quickly overshadowed by two precise shots at the par-5 eighth, leading to a tantalizingly slow eagle putt that Woods made as a stiff breeze whipped his pant legs.
The 60-year-old Watson, who nearly became the oldest major winner in golf history at last year's British Open, showed that wasn't a fluke, leading for much of the day before Couples' late surge.
The last time he did it was 20 years ago. Watson closed with a 5-foot birdie putt at the tough 18th hole, set up by a brilliant iron shot that skipped along the right side of the green, caught the ridge and turned back toward the flag.
Mickelson was among three other morning starters who matched Watson's 67, joined by reigning U.S. PGA Championship winner Y.E. Yang and Lee Westwood, seeking his first major title.
Mickelson had a blistering eagle-birdie-birdie set starting at the par-5 13th, and his score could have been even lower. He missed birdie tries of about 10 feet at No. 16 and a 5-footer at the 18th, but this was still an encouraging start for a two-time Masters winner who has struggled this year.
"I do love this place," Mickelson said. "I don't have to be perfect. I can miss a shot and still recover. It relaxes me when I go down Magnolia Lane."
Tocha Cunningham waited along the first fairway with her 15-year-old son, Jordan Salley, who is a huge fans of Woods and was attending his first Masters
"I'm ready to watch him. He's always been my favorite player. He's always been an inspiration," Jordan said.
The mother tried to discuss the scandal with her son.
"He understood, but Jordan did not want to talk about it because Tiger is his hero," she said. "He wanted to look beyond the personal and just focus on the golf."
Officials at Augusta National insisted that no one player - not even when it's the world's best embroiled in a scandal - would overshadow their tournament. And for a few moments, at least, that was the case as Jack Nicklaus joined Arnold Palmer at the first tee shortly after sunrise for the opening shots.
"I've never been up this early at Augusta," cracked the 70-year-old Nicklaus, who won a record six green jackets and agreed to return this year to join Palmer in a ceremonial role.