AUGUSTA, Ga. – Tiger Woods walked onto the first tee Monday to awkward silence from about 500 fans who gradually warmed up to him as he began a practice round at the Masters with Fred Couples.
“Welcome back, Tiger,” came the occasional shout from the gallery.
With stubble trying to form a goatee, Woods turned to acknowledge the fans with a nod and a smile — something he rarely did before a sex scandal made him the source of so much ridicule.
It was his first time playing before a gallery since Nov. 15 at the Australian Masters and its sellout crowd in Melbourne, when Woods came from behind on the final day to win for the 82nd time in his career.
Woods teed off about 8 a.m., right as the gates to Augusta National opened. The crowd increased with every hole, and it included some familiar faces — Masters chairman Billy Payne was among those watching.
A helicopter circled the course without flying overhead.
Woods hooked his opening tee shot toward the ninth fairway and hit another. He walked briskly, chatting with Couples as fans lining the fairways took pictures of every step. Also getting plenty of attention was his swing coach Hank Haney, who posed for a half-dozen pictures behind the third tee.
Haney declined to talk about Woods or his game.
“Everyone can see for themselves how he’s playing,” Haney said.
Woods played the back nine on Sunday afternoon with Mark O’Meara when the course was closed.
“This is the place where you belong,” O’Meara said he told Woods as they walked down the 10th fairway. “This is what you love to do.”
The real test was to follow his practice round Monday — his first press conference since the public learned of his sordid extramarital affairs, which continue to be a sensation on the Internet and in tabloids.
His press conference is getting so much attention that Augusta National has asked media outlets for only one reporter to make sure every organization has a chance to fill the 207 seats in the press center.
Ever since he ran over a fire hydrant and into a tree in the early hours of Nov. 27 — that infamous car accident that sparked incredible revelations of rampant affairs — Woods has kept public comments to a minimum.
He issued two statements on his Web site about his infidelity. He spoke for 13 1/2 minutes to a small group of family and friends on Feb. 19 at PGA Tour headquarters. He announced he was returning to golf. And he gave a pair of five-minute interviews to TV networks.
This press conference, however, comes with no restrictions.
He won’t be reading a script into a camera. He is facing a room full of reporters, who are not limited by time.
It was Augusta National that requested Woods speak on a Monday afternoon to avoid stealing the show from so many other Masters contenders who are to have press conferences on Tuesday.
A Masters official made it clear that Woods isn’t running this show, however long it lasts.