AUGUSTA -- Thursday's opening round of the Masters Tournament was certainly one for the ages.
Not to mention the aged.
It began with Masters legends Arnold Palmer, now 80, and Jack Nicklaus, now 70, hitting the ceremonial opening tee shots at Augusta National Golf Club.
Next came 60-year-old Tom Watson, who made a real statement about golf being a lifetime sport. The two-time Masters champion, who last summer made a run at a sixth British Open title before finishing second, became the early leader with a 5-under-par 67, a number he ultimately shared with two-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson, 2009 PGA champion Y.E. Yang and K.J. Choi, both of Korea, and England's Lee Westwood.
Late in the afternoon, 50-year-old Fred Couples, the 1992 Masters champion who has been making a mockery of the Champions Tour this year, breezed into first place with a Masters personal best of 66.
All of this took place on a stage dominated by Tiger Woods' return to golf after a nearly five-month absence spent trying to sort out his personal life. Woods posted a 4-under-par 68 that included a pair of eagle-3s, the first time he has managed that feat at Augusta. It was his lowest first round in the Masters by two shots.
Woods, who teed off at 1:42 p.m. and tapped in for par on 18 at 7:22 p.m., received a rousing welcome from the spectators who packed around the first tee, and he didn't disappoint. Woods shook hands with playing partners Matt Kuchar and Choi and their caddies and acknowledged the reception from the gallery with a big grin and a tip of his hat.
He ripped a drive down the middle of the first fairway on his way to a par and made a fantastic birdie on the ninth, where he had to hook his approach around the trees to the pin tucked on the back tier of the green and sank a 12-footer for an eagle-birdie finish on the front for a 33. Woods bogeyed 10 and 14, just missed an eagle try on the 13th and then notched his second eagle of the day on 15 before finishing with pars.
Woods said the day felt like normal, although names like Couples and Watson at the top of the leaderboard prompted him to say, "How about that!"
Couples, who has three wins and a runner-up finish in four starts this year on the Champions Tour, lit up the back nine Thursday. After making the turn at 34, he birdied 12, 13, 15 and 17.
"I drove the ball and putted well in all (the Champions Tour events), and that's pretty much what I did today," Couples said. "Maybe it was good that the wind was blowing … because I wasn't expecting too much, to be honest with you. And once I got going, I just kept making putts and ended up 6 under."
Couples called winning the Masters at age 50 "a pipe dream."
"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," he said.
Watson, who beat Couples in the Champions Tour's Mitsubishi Championship in January, got off to a quick start with birdies on 1 and 3 and closed with a flourish, making birdies at 15, 16 and 18. In the middle, he managed to make a bunch of pars despite missing five greens in a row on the back nine.
"Playing Augusta National, there's a lot of experience you have to use to play the golf course. You know that you're going to have to put the ball in certain positions or you're going to make bogey," Watson said.
Watson, who has missed seven straight cuts at the Masters, said his goal was "to play better than I've played in the last five or six years, and I achieved that for the first round."
"It doesn't matter what it is right now. It matters on Sunday," Watson said. "The beautiful thing about this golf course is that there's a tragedy awaiting you on about every hole. It's always there and you always know it. That's what can happen here. It's never over."
Reach Tommy Braswell at firstname.lastname@example.org.