KindredApril 4, 2010

Whole New Light

Twelve months removed from Tiger Woods' last appearance at Augusta National, the golf world has a different perspective

Tiger Woods engaged the crowd during his practice round Monday.

Tiger Woods engaged the crowd during his practice round Monday.

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- No one called him Cheetah, no one that I heard, anyway. Nor did I hear a blonde waitress shout out her phone number. I did hear respectful silences, polite applause and the occasional call of "Welcome back, Tiger."

Given the golf club's Bible-belt geography and Augusta National's decades of indoctrinating the sport's most courteous galleries, all of that was predictable.

But to Woods, it was an amazement. He called the galleries "just incredible." Their encouragement "blew me away." The thousands who watched him play a Monday practice round for the Masters "touched my heart pretty good."

I thought he overstated it, but then I'm not a recent escapee from sex rehab.

Maybe after that, a man just feels good to be outdoors.

It was 8 a.m. when Woods began the first day of the rest of his golf life.

"The first tee," he said, "I didn't know what to expect."

A new thing, this redemption tour.

"I've never been in this position before," he said.

This position being golf's man of the scarlet letter, Hester Prynne now on the tee.

"To be out there in front of people where I have done some things that are just horrible..."

Not that he'll tell us what the horror is. There is a word for it. It has become the word that must not be mentioned. Ask what his oft-mentioned rehab was for, he says, "That's personal, thank you." Yes, sex is often personal. "...and, you know, for the fans to really want to see me play again. I mean, that felt great, that really did."

First swing on this first day, he snap-hooked a drive so far left he quit watching and teed up again.

Usually, Mondays at the Masters are nothings. For 16 years now, Woods has come to Augusta the very picture of ambition in transformation to achievement. From golden child to the ultimate professional athlete, he became the best there ever was at his hard game. He banked treasure in the hundreds of millions. He married the most drop-dead beautiful woman Sweden could offer. Their son and daughter were born in the couple's image.

All this, more than a man in touch with reality would dare ask for, seemed to serve mainly as signal to Woods that he could have more, more, and then, yes, more. The gossipmongers' most recent mistress census has put the number at 14. While neither confirming nor denying any of the one-source stories of such liaisons, Woods, in his series of mea culpas, has alluded to marital infidelities, plural.

At the fourth tee Monday, a young woman waited to see Woods.

She was brunette, a minus.

She was cute, a plus.

She was married, a minus.

She tugged down the top edge of her pink chamisole, a plus.

"Here he comes," she said, raising her digital camera.

On the tee, the hole playing 237 yards, Woods drew an iron from his bag and took a couple swings. Then he dropped the iron back in and pulled a metal wood.

"Getting older," he said, and those who heard him laughed along.

As Woods left the tee, the woman showed off her pictures.

"That was EX-citing," she said, a plus.

Not to make too much of one woman's thrill in Woods's presence, but the moment was an innocent reminder that the golfer was not without accomplices in destroying his reputation, scarring his marriage, and ending corporate sponsorships worth millions. I was told as much in no uncertain terms in the middle of the seventh fairway. I had said to a gray-haired African-American man, "You look like a man who's lived long enough to understand what's happening with Tiger. Tell me what you think."

Bobby Blanks says he is 68 years old, a five-handicap player who owns a restaurant, Café 74 in Delco, N.C. He had driven over from Wilmington for the Monday round, to see Woods, to be in the gallery, his black face a sign that he was in Tiger's corner.

"Women!" he said. "The whole world knows what he did. But they gotta know the women knew who he was and that he was a married man and they went with him anyway. Why's he get all the heat? They're to blame, too. What's he supposed to do? He's a celebrity. Beautiful women throwing themselves at him! Women chase professional athletes around the world. They want to get pregnant, get their money."

I asked Blanks what he thought Woods's father, Earl, would have said about his son's behavior.

"He'd have chastised him good, got in his case," Blanks said.

Just a practice round, this was.

Fun seeing his old buddies again.

"Amazing how many hugs I've gotten from the guys," he said.

Thursday, it's real, his first PGA round in almost six months. "That first tee, I'm looking forward to it," he said. "I haven't looked forward to that tee shot in a long time, not like this. It feels like fun again."

It was fun once. Fun before it became a chase of history. Fun before all this.

"When you live a life where you're lying all the time, life is not fun," he said. "And that's where I was. Now that's been stripped all away and here I am. And it feels fun again."

Fun?

It's not Hogan coming back from a car wreck. That, we could cheer.

This is Woods back from the train wreck of his life. Nothing to cheer.