Tiger practices at the Masters
AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Let the record show that Tiger Woods' first golf shot in front of a public gallery since his highly publicized personal scandal led to a mulligan.
Meanwhile, the galleries at Augusta National Golf Club seem to be offering him a mulligan of a different kind. Despite speculation that Woods' return could be marked by disruptions, there were no signs of such behavior during his early Monday practice round in advance of the Masters Tournament.
When Woods made his way from the putting green to the first tee at exactly 8 a.m. ET, a crowd estimated at 500 watched in silence. The first smattering of applause took place when playing partner Fred Couples showed up seconds later.
Woods' initial tee shot was pulled way left, but he drew some laughs when he asked for a second ball, which found the fairway.
His swing appeared to be the same maneuver he's been working on for years, looking strong throughout the round -- that opening tee shot notwithstanding. It is the first time his swing has been seen publicly since Nov. 15, when he won the Australian Masters. Two weeks later, he was involved in a car accident which led to reports of extramarital affairs, a stay in rehabilitation and a public statement where he admitted to indiscretions.
More noteworthy was the fact that Tiger not only prepared for the tournament without incident, but actually seemed to interact with those outside the gallery ropes more than in years past.
After walking off the first tee, one fan called out, "Welcome back, Tiger!" to which the four-time Masters champion nodded his head in acknowledgement. Later, another observer commented, "Great day for golf, Tiger," and the pro cheerily responded, "Yes, it is."
This was largely the theme of the morning, as a large, supportive gallery followed Woods and Couples, often applauding and offering words of encouragement to the two players. An increased security team was also on hand to prevent any possible disorderly conduct toward the competitors.
"Good to see you Tiger," said Connie Mickey of Columbus, Neb., as Woods played the second hole.
"Thank you," replied Woods, showing a big smile and clearly making eye contact with Mickey, who was 15 yards away, behind the ropes. "It was nice to see him smile," Mickey said after Woods made his way down the par-5 hole.
During practice rounds, fans are allowed to bring cameras; seemingly every person in attendance was clicking shots of Tiger throughout the round.
For their part, Woods and Couples appeared comfortable in the public setting, talking amiably while walking down fairways, but otherwise working on their respective games. There was no friendly match taking place, as each player chipped and putted multiple balls to various spots on each green.
The crowd increased with every hole, and it included some familiar faces -- Masters chairman Billy Payne was among those watching. Also getting plenty of attention was Woods' 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.
During the round, Woods and Couples were joined by Jim Furyk on the 13th green. That's where Woods greeted Furyk's caddie, Mike "Fluff'' Cowan, with a long embrace. Cowan was Woods' first caddie on tour and worked for him during his first victory here in 1997.
Throughout the round, the reception Woods received was pleasant but understated.
"It was awesome,'' Couples said. "That's really the way it should be. He knows he made a blunder. He's back here to play golf and make up for it. Good golf will do that and bad golf will do that. He's a good kid. I've played almost every year a practice round with him at Augusta. There's no reason for it to change.''
Asked if he felt the story could return to golf after Monday's news conference, Couples said: "I just played a practice round with him and all I'm answering is how he's doing. He's the best player in the world. He hasn't played golf in awhile but he's still the best player in the world. I think he's the most talented. I love the way he plays. I think he'll do well here.''
This was the sixth day Woods has played the course in the past three weeks. Reports are that he plans to practice on Tuesday, as well.
"I think [fans are] excited to see him play," Couples said of the Augusta fan base. "When they see him hit a driver, they're not relating that to some mistake he made whenever it was. They want to see how he's playing. They can't touch him and feel him, but they can yell for him and that's what they did for four hours. It was kind of fun to see. I don't think it's going to be any different. It's not a matter of whether he shoots 68 or 75 -- they're going to be happy to see him."
Woods played the back nine on Sunday afternoon with Mark O'Meara when the course was open only to participants and club members.
Following the round, Woods met with the assembled media in his first full-length interview since the scandal broke in November. He took questions for 33 minutes.
Woods has finished sixth or better in each of the last four editions of the Masters, but hasn't won the green jacket since 2005.
Tee times for this week's tournament will be released on Tuesday afternoon. The opening round begins on Thursday.
Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. Information from The Associated Press, ESPN.com golf writer Bob Harig and ESPN.com golf editor Kevin Maguire was used in this report.
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Most of the bounces seemed to go Phil Mickelson's way Sunday at Augusta. None was better than seeing wife Amy greenside as he captured his third Masters title. Rick ReillyThe Masters
Date: Apr. 8-11, 2010
2010 champion: Phil Mickleson
Course: Augusta National Golf Club
Where: Augusta, Ga.
Yardage, par: 7,435 yards, par-72