SirakApril 7, 2010

New And Improved

Tiger Woods' return was a step forward, and in some ways, a look back

Tiger Woods on Thursday reminded fans what they were drawn to in the first place.

Tiger Woods on Thursday reminded fans what they were drawn to in the first place.

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- There was something eerily familiar about it all, a spine-tingling flashback to another time in this very same place, on another day when anticipation came wrapped in uncertainty.

As Tiger Woods eased onto the first tee at Augusta National, employees of the club -- cooks, busboys, waiters, maintenance workers -- moved onto the clubhouse veranda and balcony and popped out of the trees on the right of the first fairway to watch, drawn by a man who by color, age and energy felt a lot like one of them. The year was 1997 and Tiger Woods was playing in his first Masters as a professional, a tournament he would win by an astonishing 12 strokes.

That scene was replicated on Thursday, when Woods, no longer the baby-faced 21-year-old when he won the first of his four green jackets, made a debut of a different sort. This time he was not stepping onto the stage as much as reappearing in the spotlight, trying to regain a luster lost in scandal as he competed for the first time in five months, painful days in which much he had built through professional success was lost amid personal failure. If Woods were to win here this week -- and he had his best first round ever in the Masters -- it might be more startling than what he accomplished in 1997.

One question surrounding his return was how Woods would be greeted. The response was a little more muted than in '97, and overhead a plane pulling a banner that read "TIGER DID YOU MEAN BOOTYISM?" symbolized the new world he has created for himself. Still, club employees mixed among green-jacketed members gathered to watch, drawn by a curiosity rivaling that of 13 years earlier, as, like then, no one knew what to expect. And that was the other compelling question. How would he perform after such an extended layoff and after all he has gone through personally?

What those who watched saw was a reminder of the special skills that made Woods one of the most-recognized athletes in the world. He toured Augusta National in 68 strokes, two off the lead by Fred Couples. For someone who had never broken 70 in the first round of the Masters, it was a clear reminder that, no matter what has happened, Woods still has to be considered the best player in the world until there is evidence otherwise. For the first time in 16 Masters he made two eagles in the same round.

His manner was as impressive as his mechanics. "Normal," Woods said when asked to rate his nerves on the first tee. "Just another tee shot starting another tournament." Just a routine day at the office. "I expected to go out there and shoot something under par today," he said, and being in the next-to-the-last group he had a sense how the course was playing. "The tees were up and the pins were friendly -- especially on the par-5s. Guys were tearing it up. Unfortunately, I didn't putt well or it could have been a special round."

Hitting first in a threesome that included Matt Kuchar and K.J. Choi, Woods smashed his opening tee shot long and straight. He acknowledged cheers -- and shouts of "Go Tiger" -- by lifting his cap. A day after Woods was lectured both by Augusta National chairman Billy Payne and by his late father Earl in a Nike TV commercial, he was back in the place where his goodness was never questioned -- on the golf course.

The first birdie of the rest of Tiger's career came on the short par-4 third hole and the first bogey on the seventh when he missed the fairway, missed the green and missed a five-foot par save. Then it was vintage Woods as he overpowered the par-5 eighth with an eight-footer for eagle, followed by a sensational birdie on the ninth, when he carved a 5-iron out of the left rough in a beautiful right-to-left shot from 207 yards to 10 feet, then made the birdie putt to turn in three-under-par 33.

The brilliance we have come to expect flashed frequently, revealing itself again on No. 15, when Woods' second shot on the par 5 covered the flag all the way and nestled 10-feet behind the hole, which he converted for eagle. Among the several putts he missed were an eight-footer for birdie on No. 12 and a six-footer for birdie on No. 18.

Woods came back to the golf saying he would be more respectful of the game -- assumed to be a reference to his swearing and club throwing -- and on this day at least he appeared to be trying to live up to his promise. When he missed a 15-foot birdie try on No. 6 he sagged more in frustration than anger as the ball was halfway to the hole. On No. 11, when he blew his tee shot way right, he appeared as if he wanted to bang his driver -- as he often does -- but caught himself. "I felt calm out there all day," he said.

And then there was his relationship with the fans, whose affection seemed to grow during the round as he reminded them why they fell in love with him to begin with. Instead of staring straight ahead, Woods smiled often and frequently acknowledged the cheers by waving, touching the bill of his cap and occasionally taking his off his hat.

"That was unbelievable from the very get-go," he said about the support. "It was heartfelt and it was all day." When asked what his goal was for the week, he sounded very much like the confident kid who came here in 1997. "Why enter if you don't think you are going to win?" Woods said.

Flashes of the old Tiger -- in the good sense -- were still there in other ways as well. The eagle on No. 8 elicited a double fist pump and when he hit the hook from the rough on No. 9 he went jogging to the middle of the fairway -- watching its flight Sergio like -- then buckled his knees as the ball rolled past the hole.

Augusta National chairman Billy Payne established the agenda most everyone has for Tiger's return -- that his actions will speak louder than his words -- when he said Wednesday, "Our hero did not live up to the expectations of the role model we saw for our children." Later Wednesday, Nike unveiled a TV ad in which the voice of Earl Woods can be heard saying, "I want to find out what your feelings are. And did you learn anything?"

The early returns, based on Thursday's first round were that, while it is too early to tell if Woods is a changed man, there is reason to think he has recognized what he must change -- on the golf course in any case. Woods returned not with the innocence of 1997 -- far from it -- but with some of the same promise, and all of the talent, perhaps even more.

In the sheer numbers of the record book, Woods lived up to that earlier promise of greatness. Now we see if he is up to the latter promise to change and if the two -- the indomitable champion and the caring person -- can coexist. The next three rounds of the Masters -- as the pressure builds and the character of all of the competitors is probed -- should provide some interesting insight into where he stands on his road back. For now, it's all good -- and the golf is great.