— AUGUSTA, Ga. - Before the clock finally struck midnight on his five months of shame and scandal, there were a couple of final naughty text messages, delivered in airspace instead of cyberspace, for us to see and snicker at Thursday.
Flying far above the reach of security at Augusta National, two airplanes interrupted Tiger Woods’ afternoon tee time and dragged along these banners: "Tiger, Did You Mean Bootyism?" and "Sex Addict? Yeah. Right. Sure. Me. Too."
Interestingly, they were the only protests, and silent at that, to greet Woods at the first tee of the Masters and beyond. From his opening shot, Woods was securely in his sanctuary, after spending so many awkward weeks out of it. The warm reception he felt from the fans, the pair of eagles he holed and the highest opening-round score he posted told how comfortable he looked. Finally, Woods was in control of his world, and it felt like normal once again.
“I feel like I’m in the right spot,” he said.
Well, why not? He’s just two shots behind tournament leader Fred Couples, which should send shivers through every golfer with a tour card. Here’s someone who’s enduring a turbulent personal life, who saw his good name crumble to Earth, who certainly squirmed while the tabloid rags ripped through his private life, who took five freaking months off and still can’t be stopped. This is the nightmare to any golfer who foolishly thought Woods would be too whupped up to concentrate on golf.
Guess what? He’s concentrating on golf.
He dropped a 4-under-par 68 despite blowing putts all day. Had he delivered an average putting stroke, he’d be leading the pack. You got the sense that Woods is just getting warmed up, that his best rounds are still to come. And that he’s still in dogged pursuit of Jack Nicklaus here, at his favorite tournament.
“I just went about my business,” Woods said. “I got into the flow early, started hitting shots right away, which was nice. I was calm all day, just trying not to throw away shots. I didn’t putt really well, and if I had, it would’ve been a special round.”
Thursday was about the best possible scenario for Woods, minus the airplanes and someone’s attempt to throw Woods off his game (does Elin have a pilot’s license?). The crowd, thicker than Woods’ black book, formed a human swell and greeted him with a hearty ovation from the first to the 18th holes. He rarely found himself in trouble. Once, trapped in the trees, he ripped a bending shot that would’ve made David Beckham proud on No. 9 that landed six feet from the hole.
“I didn’t have the luxury of playing events coming into this tournament,” he said. “But I prepared well. I had some good practice sessions. If you go out there and play the way you practice, it doesn’t matter if you hadn’t played in a while.”
The conversation is slowly turning to golf, which brings relief to Woods. But a few issues remain. He received a public scolding from Billy Payne, the chairman of Augusta National, who chided Woods for “letting us down” and being a poor role model. It was an odd choice of words from Payne. Not that he didn’t make a good point. But the club never takes a player to task.
Evidently, though, Payne told Woods in advance what was coming. The two spoke before Payne’s public comments, and in response, Woods said: “I was disappointed in myself, too.”
Then the Nike ad. It shows Woods, standing expressionless, while listening to a lecture from his father. It looks uncomfortable, feels uncomfortable, is definitely clumsy and seems to exploit Tiger’s troubles, all in the name of what ... selling drivers? Previous Tiger ads for Nike made you laugh or marvel at his ability to hit a golf ball better than any human being. This ad makes you wonder why someone bothered to make it.
Given that Nike is one of the few companies that didn’t pull the rug from under his feet, Tiger wasn’t about to disagree with the message.
“I think it’s apropos,” he said. “It’s what my dad would say. Even though he’s long gone, he’s still helping me. It’s amazing how my dad can speak to me in different ways. Any son who lost a father would understand the spot.”
Whatever. It’s all about the golf now, and the best player in the world, and the chase of Jack and another green jacket. It was a long day coming, but finally, Woods was hitting shots, hearing cheers, even smiling.
“I do feel comfortable on the golf course,” he said.
Meanwhile, everyone else on the course is squirming.