First hurdle safely negotiated for 'nervous' Woods
Tiger Woods played his first round in the competitive arena here in almost five months yesterday and received what his playing partner, Fred Couples, called "an awesome reception".
An estimated 50,000 fans flocked to Augusta and gave Woods the welcome he and his advisers had been hoping for. The heavy security presence which flanked the morning pairing indicated the concerns which accompanied the world No 1's reappearance.
In the event, the Augusta patrons were suitably respectful. "They were excited to see him on the first and gave him a standing ovation on the 18th," said Couples. "And so they should. He knows he made a blunder and he's back here to make up for it. He's a good kid."
The 14-time Major winner looked nervous when jumping on to a buggy outside the clubhouse and the irony was not lost on many that the driver happened to be an attractive blonde. And at least one former champion was struck by the muted atmosphere as Woods made his way to the course.
"He was on the buggy going to the first tee and nobody applauded, he walked to the first tee and nobody applauded," said the former Masters champion. "Only when he hit the ball did the galleries applaud. This is something Woods will have to handle."
As it proved, all Woods had to handle was his own self-doubts as his golf game faltered.
Woods and Couples teed off at 8.05. It was strategically timed to appease. A dawn start would not have gone down too well. The Augusta gates had swung open (well, nudged ajar) at 8.0 and the galleries swarmed in and swarmed around the pairing. For the next four hours, thousands followed Couples and Woods.
To say the mood seemed controlled was an understatement. It was like they were watching the Pope practise for the Vatican Invitational.
It was a surreal situation. Woods chipped in twice in a row from off the back of the third green and normally, outside the ropes, chaotic high-fiving would ensue. Instead there was a ripple of applause. Woods tipped his hat, as he did so many times. As far as crowd interaction goes, this might not have been up there with Phil Mickelson's autographathon. But it was animated compared to the Woods we previously knew.
Finally, around Amen Corner the whoops and the hollers rang out. It was all very accommodating.
Surely this was the armchair ride he had wished for when deciding to make the first Major of the season the first tournament of the season.
Shame the golf wasn't so well-ordered. To be blunt, Woods joined the hookers. He drove the ball erratically and, for all his fans, rather worryingly.
Eventually, Jim Furyk joined up to make it a three-ball and with his favoured Ryder Cup partner in tow, the experience only became easier for Woods. The walk to the final green was particularly warm.
"He's playing very well," said Couples. "We've played a lot of practice rounds at Augusta. Basically, we're buddies and he is doing great. He's the best player in the world and his intimidation factor is always there.
However, not everyone was as positive as Couples and the galleries. Nick Faldo, for one, is unsure how the scandal will have affected him.
"We used to say that with the intimidation factor Tiger was already two-up," he said. "But what he has been through must have changed him.
"It will be intriguing to see how he deals with all the hurdles."
But as he ate his lunch here yesterday, Woods could console himself in the knowledge that one hurdle was already safely negotiated. (© Independent News Service)