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Couples leads, Woods on pace

AUGUSTA -- There is rarely a shortage of storylines at the Masters in any year.

However, Thursday's opening round of the 2010 tournament gave players, members, patrons and fans alike at Augusta National plenty to talk about.

From the wind that persisted most of the day to the expected heavy rain for the later rounds that never really materialized to low scores posted by some of the biggest names from the present (like Phil Mickelson and Y.E. Yang) and the past (Tom Watson, Fred Couples and Bernard Langer) there was never a dull moment.

And then, there was Tiger Woods.

The center of a media circus in his return to competitive golf after a highly publicized scandal that prompted him to take almost five months off, the four-time champion had to deal with the layoff, plus plenty of other distractions -- including a pair of airplanes flying overhead pulling banners with less than flattering messages on them.

Through it all, Woods had the best opening round he's ever had at Augusta, firing a 4-under par 68 to stand just two shots off the lead.

"I expected to go out there and shoot something under par (Thursday)," Woods said. "And after looking at all the scores, guys were just tearing this place apart."

Woods has a sizable group of players alongside him to fend off, as well as another fairly large group to catch, including a pair of aging former champions.

Fred Couples -- the 50-year-old 1992 champion -- birdied four of his last seven holes for a 6-under par 66 to hold the first-round lead, while Tom Watson -- a 60-year-old two-time champion -- had one of the top early tee times with 67 to lead a pack of five different players one shot back.

"You know, you're always nervous because, no matter what age your are, because you want to do well," Couples said. "I felt like (Thursday) was just one of those rounds where maybe it was good the wind was blowing when I was playing because I wasn't, you know, expecting too much, to be honest with you. And once I got going, I just kept making putts and ended up 6-under."

But the list of those chasing him is a long and formidable one, with 31 players breaking par.

And some of the biggest names in the game are near the top of the leader board. Mickelson, Yang and Lee Westwood joined Watson in the group at 5 under. Woods and up-and-coming youngster Anthony Kim among those at 4 under.

Many of the best scores came from the early tee times, which played in breezy, but comfortable conditions.

"Well, it was a good day," said Mickelson, whose round included a 4-under back nine highlighted by an eagle on the par 5 13th hole.

"I played well, and the greens were receptive, which in this wind allowed for a lot of guys to score and make some birdies. There were some good pin placements that were in low spots that, again, allowed us to attack some pins."

Still most eyes were on Woods, who got an overwhelmingly positive reception from fans, which seemed to energize him.

He had a solid round that included two eagles for the first time in his career at Augusta National, despite needing 31 putts on his round.

And he credited the reception he got with helping him stay focused.

"(The) reception was incredible ... pretty much all day," Woods said. "I was just pretty calm all day. I felt that I was just trying to plod my way along and not throw away shots. ... Thirty-plus guys are under par. It wasn't a day I could, you know, splash it all over the place.

"I had to hit the ball well and I had to make some putts. Unfortunately, I didn't putt very good (Thursday), otherwise it could have been a very special round."

It was a special round for Watson, who evoked memories of last July, when he nearly shocked the golf world by leading the British Open most of the tournament before falling to Duluth resident Stewart Cink in a playoff.

"I think a big part of my success (Thursday) was having my son (Michael) on the bag," Watson said. "He said, 'Dad, show me. Show me you can still play this golf course.' You know what? I wanted to show him I can still play the golf course."

Of local interest, Cink got off to a good start, making the turn at 1 under, but started the back nine with a double bogey at 10 and a bogey at 11, and finished with a 4-over 76.

Another Georgia Tech alum, Matt Kuchar, was paired with Woods and K.J. Choi and finished with a solid round of 2-under 70.