AUGUSTA, Ga. - Another Masters officially got under way at 8 yesterday morning, with Billy Mayfair doing the honors.

Reality suggests that the tournament actually began almost 6 hours later, when four-time champion Tiger Woods stepped onto the first tee in pursuit of his third consecutive major.

Not that anyone's counting.

But just in case you are, the first-time father-to-be opened with a 1-over-par 73 at Augusta National that left him four behind Justin Rose and Brett Wetterich with 54 holes to go. So feel free to make of it what you will. But you might want to nibble on the numbers first.

In his 11th start here as a professional, he's now 9-over par in the first round. The next three rounds, he's 61-under. Just figured it was worth saying. In the second round, his average score has been 69.6. So it's not as if he's toast. The four times he has gone on to win the green jacket, he has opened with three 70s and a 74 (in 2005). He was down by seven that April.

He bogeyed his last two holes yesterday after making birdies on Nos. 13 and 15 - the two par 5s on the back nine. They were also his first birds. He also bogeyed the seventh.

"I just threw away a good round of golf," he said. "And I'm not real happy about that right now . . . I battled all day to get back to level. I just wanted to shoot an under-par round.

"I just needed to play the last two even and I didn't get it done."

It's something you don't hear him mutter too often around this place. Again, it was only Thursday. You'd better believe every single bloke in the field knows exactly where Tiger stands. Because that's not only where this thing often begins, but where it ends.

Besides, he still shot three better than the second favorite, Phil Mickelson, your defending champion. That should at least count for something, right?

Anyway, only nine players finished under-par. Five more are at 72. In other words, it was rough sledding out there. For the first time in a while, there has been little rain to soften the grounds. Which means the course is finally playing hard and fast, or how the powers that be envisioned it when they lengthened and strengthened it over the last 5 years. Or Tiger-proofed it, if you will.

So if the early leaderboard looked more like a U.S. Open or PGA Championship, don't be shocked. It might be a glimpse into the future. Since the forecast isn't calling for any wet stuff, this could turn into a demolition derby by the weekend.

In the meantime . . .

Rose contended at the 1998 British Open as an amateur. Then he pretty much disappeared. But he led the Masters after both the first and second rounds 3 years ago, before following with an 81 en route to a tie for 22nd. This is the first time he has been back. He had no bogeys, the only player to do so, and three birdies. It's only the second time he has broken 71 here. He hit just nine fairways and five greens, but putted all of 20 times, which, of course, is impossible.

"Certainly my short game was unbelievable," the 26-year-old Brit said. "But I put myself in spots where you could up-and-down the ball [to save par]."

Houdini would have applauded. But keep in mind that the last European to win a major was Paul Lawrie, in the 1999 British Open.

Wetterich was making his Masters debut, 7 months after playing in his first Ryder Cup for the United States. Amazingly, the three other American rookies from that competition - Augusta's own Vaughn Taylor, Zach Johnson and J.J. Henry - each shot a 71. Henry is also playing in his first Masters. Go figure those odds.

"I didn't want to get any negative thoughts in my head, you know, how hard it is to play here for the first time," Wetterich said. "I got some good advice from people and that was awfully helpful."

The others at 71 are Tim Clark, last year's runner-up, and Rich Beem, who held off Woods to win the 2002 PGA. Yet he's never been heard from at any other major. Or too many minors, for that matter.

"I'm taking 71 at Augusta National on Thursday," he said. "I'd be in the mid-60s on a regular Tour course, but who knows."

David Toms, the 2001 PGA champ, is tied with England's David Howell at 70. Toms does have two top-10s here, in 1998 and '03, but has missed the cut 3 years running.

Your handful at 72 includes Davis Love III, who has had his openings here, Henrik Stenson and Singh. Not Vijay, but India's Jeev Milkha Singh (no relation). It was that kind of day.

Tiger will head back out at 10:34 this morning. And the tournament can pick up anew. As if we didn't already know. *