Karl MacGinty : Tiger's easy ride
Magnolia Lane proves perfect place for fallen star to dip his toe back into the real world
THE 'new' Tiger Woods was touched by the warm welcome back he received on the fairways at Augusta yesterday morning -- then he bobbed, weaved and shadow-boxed as adroitly as ever in his first open sparring session with world's media.
Woods had been nervous about his return to the public arena at the Masters but by yesterday evening must have been deeply grateful to get such an easy ride on the golf course and during his 40-minute 'interrogation' in the media interview room.
Understandably, Tiger's golf wasn't up to much during his practice round with Fred Couples but he found the probing of the media easier to handle than the intricacies of Augusta National.
Still a few intriguing new facts emerged and Woods, to his credit, fronted up on the issue of the treatments he received last year from controversial Canadian Dr Anthony Galea to assist with his recovery from knee surgery.
For a start, Tiger revealed that Federal investigators in the US have contacted his agent at IMG, Mark Steinberg, in connection with his links to the Toronto medic, who has been charged in his homeland with conspiracy to smuggle Human Growth Hormone and other banned substances across the Canada-US frontier.
"Yes, they've actually contacted Steiny and will receive my full cooperation whenever they need me. But as of right now, they have not asked for any of my time," Woods said.
Asked why he went to Dr Galea when there were a lot of doctors who did blood-spinning closer to home, Woods said: "Well, he's worked with so many athletes -- there's a certain comfort level when a person has worked with athletes."
Remarkably, Tiger also revealed that he'd snapped his Achilles tendon in December 2008 as he recovered from reconstructive knee surgery after his sensational US Open victory at Torrey Pines that June -- and that the injury recurred several times last year.
He admitted taking the painkiller Vicodin to help handle the pain after four operations on his knee down the years and when he had that Achilles tendon problem, and that he took Ambien, a tranquilliser, to help him sleep when his father Earl was sick and then passed away in May 2006.
Yet Woods denied ever being addicted to any prescription drug. When asked if Ambien had played a role in last November's car crash or, following a leaked police report which suggested he'd been "mumbling and snoring", if he'd been admitted as a possible over-dose victim, he was evasive.
"Well, the police investigated the accident and they cited me $166 and it's a closed case," replied Tiger, who did reveal that he received "a pretty sore neck and five stitches in a busted-up lip" during the collision.
If Tiger shed little light on the past, he made his intentions to clean up his act on the golf course both in word and deed yesterday. When it came to dipping his toe back into the water, Tiger knew he could not find a safer place than Augusta National and that's precisely how it panned out yesterday.
There's no piranhas around here and, judging by the strong yet subtle security presence in the galleries yesterday morning as Woods played his first round of golf in public in nearly five months, if anyone as much a bared a tooth, it'd be noticed.
More than 45,000 are admitted on practice days at the Masters yet queues at the giant souvenir store were smaller than usual as the majority of those fans streamed straight out onto the course to watch Tiger play a friendly two-ball with Couples.
The reception Woods received was generous and polite, almost to the point of being muted, as if people felt a little unsure about how they should respond to one of sport's most notorious fallen angels. The greatest difference was with Tiger himself.
In keeping with the rules governing spectators at Augusta National, the only shouted comments directed at Woods were positive and, in marked contrast to his usual studied indifference to the public on the golf course, he looked up and acknowledged every single one.
After years of urging, it has taken the worst crisis in Tiger's life to persuade him to take a leaf out of Phil Mickelson's book and pay due regard to the people who effectively pay his wages.
Not that Tiger's golf inspired too much excitement on a hot and gloriously sunny spring morning. In fact, he played poorly, making nonsense of his current rating as Masters favourite.
From the moment he pulled his opening tee shot through the trees bordering the left side of the first hole and onto the ninth fairway, Woods was comprehensively outplayed by Couples. Woods teed-up another ball and crashed it 285 yards down the middle. Though Mulligans are supposedly banned on practice days at the Masters, Tiger clearly still feels 'entitled' to overlook some rules.
As he walked from the sheltered tee at the par five second, Woods couldn't avoid hearing the crowd. "We missed you, Tiger," came one shout. "Thanks," he replied.
After months in which Woods consistently has been ill advised and the crisis surrounding him badly mismanaged, yesterday's charm offensive represents a significant step towards his rehabilitation.
There was a nice mix of humour and humility from Tiger on the tee at four, a 240-yard par-three which, when played to its full length, is one of the most demanding holes at Augusta, even when the air's as deathly still as yesterday.
Woods grabbed a long iron. "Nah, rescue (club)," whispered caddie Steve Williams. "I'm getting old," said Woods with a sigh, taking the metal-wood from the bag. He fanned his first effort right into the front bunker, while the reload soared left of the green.
"Tough hole, from back here," mumbled Tiger walking off the tee. He'd then leave his first shot in the trap and send the next through the green.
On they ambled, Woods receiving a warm ovation as he strode onto the tee at the famous 12th hole in the heart of Amen Corner. Tiger then, in the usual practice day shenanigans at 16, skipped his ball across the water on to the green.
Yet the piece de resistance came at the last, where Tiger sent a couple of putts trickling to the feet of two little children, who were thrilled by this thoughtful little gift ... the world at large might have serious reservations about Woods but he made a couple of lifelong fans.