Tiger was back on track at the Augusta Masters in April. After an absence of three month in which Tiger thought about his life , game , family and social, he picked up the golf clubs again and decided to play at the Augusta masters. There was a hint of mockery in the air, but acclaim on the ground as Tiger Woods made an assured start at the Masters. “He’s gonna be needing the happy hooker here,” the Georgia golf fan said, peering back down the fairway to where the distant figure of Tiger Woods stood under the tall pines on the left of the dogleg fairway, apparently in trouble as he faced a tricky second shot across a valley and up to the 9th green.
“Well, he’s had enough of them,” his friend replied, and the two of them sniggered together in an unmalicious, thigh-slapping, good ol’ boyish sort of way. Seconds later they were whooping and hollering along with the rest of the huge gallery pressing around the green as Woods launched his ball with a controlled hook that saw it curve around the trees to land 10ft from the pin and in the perfect position for a birdie putt. Even those genial sniggers were a rarity – and the few cries of “In the hole!” were not facetious – as the world’s best but most beleaguered golfer stepped out of the confessional to make his comeback yesterday. Showing few signs of rust in his first tournament since November, Woods astonished even his most fervent admirers by covering the course in 68 strokes, four under par, bettering his lowest opening-round score at Augusta by two shots. He starts this morning in a tie for seventh place, two strokes behind the surprise overnight leader, the 50-year-old Fred Couples.
A pair of eagles at the par-five 8th and 15th holes were among the many ominous indications that he is ready to put himself in contention for a fifth green jacket on Sunday. “It felt normal,” Woods said. “I went out there and played a little fade off the first tee and I went about my business. The reception was incredible. I expected to go out there and shoot something under par and I hit the ball well all day.” What, he was asked, had this day meant to him? “It meant that I’m two shots off the lead,” he replied. “That’s what it meant. I’m here to play golf.” Anxieties about his reception by the members and patrons at Augusta National were allayed five minutes before his actual arrival on the first tee, when the starter slid a plate reading 33 TIGER WOODS into the frame and received warm applause for his efforts.
If Woods’ name and number alone were worthy of acclaim, then the day was unlikely to be a trial of anything but his golf. The sight of his black cap gliding through the spectators on the path to the tee box provoked renewed applause from the massive crowd clustered in front of the 19th-century clubhouse. As he shook hands with his playing partners, the ripple swelled to an ovation. Spectators in folding chairs rose to their feet and were rewarded by a quick smile, a tip of the cap, a wave and a “Thank you.”
Once he had fired a handsome drive up the middle of the fairway, the majority of the crowd set off in his wake. “Welcome back, Tiger,” a voice shouted as he strode along with four plain-clothes security men maintaining a discreet presence inside the ropes. If Woods had raised his eyes at that moment, however, he would have seen the afternoon’s only significant sign of dissent. A few hundred feet up, a single-engined plane puttered gently across the sky, trailing a banner that read: “TIGER: DID YOU MEAN BOOTYISM?” It was a joke that a different Woods – perhaps the 21-year-old version who indiscreetly displayed a taste for fruity humour to a GQ reporter in his first year as a professional – might have enjoyed. But not this particular week, so soon after the solemn public profession of his renewed commitment to the Buddha’s teachings.
The crowd, packed four and five deep all along the fairway, with many behind straining on tiptoe for the merest glimpse, were so respectful that they could have been in church. When an approach shot landed close to the pin, the information was eagerly passed to the many who had cheerfully resigned themselves to an afternoon’s walk in lovely surroundings and the presence, if not the sight, of a legend. The little plane continued to circle overhead as he progressed along the front nine. Given the influence of the members of the Augusta National club, it seemed surprising that none of them had contacted the nearest air force base and called for a couple of F-18s to blow the intruder and its indiscreet message out of the sky.
As Woods walked on, dispensing smiles and raising his cap to the many well-wishers, he may have reflected that his wife, Elin, and his mother, Kultida, were no longer where he has become used to seeing them, mingling quietly with the spectators while keeping pace with his progress. Nor was he being followed by the giant presence and cigar-smoke miasma of Michael Jordan, a partner on visits to the salons privés of Las Vegas. Even deprived of their close support, however, he was flourishing and the spectators packed on the wooded slope above the 3rd green were delighted when his approach shot rolled to a halt 5ft from the pin.
On a nearby scoreboard the names of Westwood, Mickelson, Els and Watson were glowing with big red under-par numbers, as if the big players were frantically straining to build an early lead while Tiger was still getting his groove back. Woods’ reply was to send the crowd into ecstasy with his first birdie of the round. The club would not allow him to stay in a cabin in the grounds this week and their chairman used his pre-tournament address on Wednesday to express corporate America’s disapproval of his recent behaviour, but the patrons of Augusta National left no doubt of their opinion yesterday. Their hero was back, his trespasses forgiven.