AUGUSTA, Ga. – There was nervous silence at the first tee. Tiger Woods was hitting a golf ball in front of fans for the first time since revelations of his marital infidelity and it didn’t appear anyone knew how to react.
By the second, there was a smattering of polite applause. By the fourth, it was what could be considered light cheers, albeit with many abstaining from showing any emotion.
Tiger Woods is back and the patrons here at Augusta National appear supportive, at least vocally. There were no boos or heckles early on his Monday practice round, not a surprise considering the make-up of the gallery (well-heeled, hard-core golf fans) and the tight security employed by this fabled club.
“I’m afraid to boo him,” said Jim Clark, a 59-year-old from Shelbyville, Tenn., who had already been lectured by security for monumental transgressions such as sitting in a standing area and leaning against a rope. “You could really get hit for that. I think if you say anything, they’ll throw you out.”
Maybe, maybe not. No one was willing to risk a valuable Masters ticket to find out. Tiger was surrounded by a security entourage that included Richmond County Sherriff’s deputies. The galleries had numerous plain clothes security people watching on.
This is one reason Woods returned to golf here at the season’s first major. He may not be enjoying full support – you could describe the mood as muted – he won’t have to hear anyone’s anger though.
“I’m not going to boo him but I’m not going to cheer him,” Clark said. “I think Tiger is good for golf but I just think he failed miserably as a role model for millions of kids. That’s my problem.”
Woods’ problem was accuracy early in a practice round with Fred Couples. Off the first he hit a three-wood so far left it nearly wound up in the ninth fairway. On the second tee Woods’ drive lacked distance, leaving him to crack to the gallery that Couples “will blow right by me.” On the par-three fourth hole, he sprayed one tee shot right into a bunker and another left well off the green.
Tiger certainly didn’t look nervous though. He casually smiled at fans and generally carried himself as usual. There was talk that Woods would try to get his practice round started before the gates open – fans were lined up 90 minutes before the 8 a.m. opening. He wound up held back by course maintenance. Then when Woods thought he’d at least get off the first tee in relative quiet of 7:40 a.m., Soren Hansen slipped in front of him.
“Hey, you had your chance,” Couples said to Woods.
“He got there first,” Woods said of Hansen. “He put his bag down first.”
Wearing a striped, light-colored golf shirt and a scraggy goatee, Woods was warmly welcomed on the first hole by Augusta National member and first tee announcer Toby Wilt.
“Welcome,” Wilt said. “It’s good to see you again.”
Such deference is expected to continue all week. Scorned fans or people hoping Tiger would be grilled for his indiscretions are likely to be disappointed. Although it will only take one heckle to make international news, Woods will likely just have to deal with fewer cheers. There are a lot of people just watching.
Woods is a hero here, a four-time champion whose absence from the sport since last November has caused interest to diminish. It’s what drives the support for even conflicted fans.
“I’m very disappointed in him, but everybody makes mistakes,” said Vicki Conrad, a 48-year-old first grade teacher from Kingsport, Tenn. “Obviously he’s good for golf. As an elementary school teacher my concern is the poor example he set for kids.”
Regardless, Conrad offered a few claps for Woods when he lined up his tee shot at the fourth hole.
Woods will sit for a press conference for the first time since an early morning, day after Thanksgiving car accident led to a tabloid scandal for the ages – complete with porn stars and Perkins waitresses, embarrassing text messages and panicked voice mails.
Until the conference, he was enjoying a fairly calm, uneventful and mildly supported practice round on a crisp, beautiful Augusta morning.
His biggest concern wasn’t the fans or the media. It was his apparently still rusty game.