Out in the Augusta woods, a large southern gentleman engaged the small elderly woman walking next to him. "Tiger's playing pretty well," he said.
"Pretty good," replied Tida Woods, the world No 1's mother, coolly, as she watched her son stride across the Masters course with the old self-assurance. It was too early to be giddy, but the signs are good. Woods shot a two-under par 70 – the same as his first-round score in three of his four winning years, in 2001, 2002 and 2005.
The view is that if he putts well in the next three rounds, then no one will stop him. One pundit spoke of him being "back in his element, in all his excellence."
His gait was not the military stomp of his prime; more the walk of a golfer who has shed an entourage of demons. Woods had nothing to fear on this opening Masters round. Not his swing, not his injuries, not the private torments that have melted away. Three PGA Tour wins already this year wafted him to Georgia on a spring breeze of confidence. As the round wore on, American TV commentators chirped about how good his "body language" was.
To follow him on this first day was like moving through the London underground at rush hour. Huge crowds pressed the ropes to see whether all the talk of a rebirth was justified.
They were more curious than passionately pro-Woods. The four-time Masters champion has not yet reached that point in the celebrity cycle where people cheer him for coming through difficulty. A quiet unease remains. But they will unite behind him if he continues to play this smoothly.
After parring the first five holes, Woods picked up birdies at six, eight and 13 as he began to find his touch and rhythm and the sense grew that his eight-year wait for a fifth Masters title might finally be ending. A bogey at the par-four 15th and a missed six-foot putt for a birdie on 15 took some of the fizz out of the round, but it was still an ominously good start.
Only once has Woods broken 70 for his first round at Augusta – in 2010, when he shot 68, before finishing tied for fourth. Woods is a slow Masters starter. Even in 2005, the last time he sported the Green Jacket, he shot 74 on the Thursday before brilliant rounds of 66 and 65.
Playing with Luke Donald and Scott Piercy, Woods looked super-fit, concentrated and relaxed. Form and fitness are powerfully back on his side.
The new phlegmatic Woods might be seen as a PR move, but for all the evidence of change from earlier, smaller tournaments, where witnesses have reported smiles, hugs and friendly conversations. Victories in the Farmers Insurance, WGC-Cadillac and Arnold Palmer Invitational not only restored him to world No 1, but also confirmed him as the best putter on the circuit this year.
With all this on the credit side, how could he not radiate certainty on the course where he made his spectacular breakthrough in 1997, 17 Masters tournaments ago? Unusually, he arrived at Augusta on the Sunday and made two practice visits in the preceding fortnight. He means business. Flickering in his thoughts must be the idea that winning here this week is almost obligatory, given how well he has been performing.
Jack Nicklaus, who holds the record with 18 major wins, let slip that Woods could suffer badly if he fails to justify favouritism with so much in his favour. "If he figures it out here, it will be a great boost for him. If he doesn't figure it out, after the spring he's had, I think it will be a lot tougher for him," Nicklaus said.
"The older he gets, and if he doesn't win, it makes my record move out further. But I've said it, and I continue to say that I still expect him to break my record. I think he's just too talented, too driven, too focused."
Woods is fighting on three fronts. He seeks his first Major win since 2008, his first Green Jacket since 2005 and the retention of his newly-reclaimed No 1 ranking. Few great athletes enjoy one prime, a lull, and then another, though Nicklaus dismisses the idea that Woods has been in the wilderness. He said: "I won in 1963, 1965 and 1966 – then I didn't win again until 1972. And then I won in 1975, and went 11 years until 1986. I mean, a career is not made over a couple of years. I don't think it's any big deal."
Nice try, but every Major championship is a big deal when Woods turns up. At 37, he still needs five more Majors to overtake Nicklaus. Seasoned observers say they saw the return of something like the old intimidation factor in his three victories this spring.
There were times when you could scan the vast galleries here and think the fire hydrant crash, the sex addiction therapy and all the swing and personnel changes were just a weird dream.
Over the next three days, we will see Woods approach the line where the right decisions, the right shots, will make the difference between redemption and continuing frustration in this defining event.
You could not ask for a more fascinating conundrum in sport, at the Augusta National club or anywhere. (© Daily Telegraph, London)