Rusty Woods gets blessing of the faithful

Some described the atmosphere at subdued but Tiger Woods’ first run around Augusta National in front of thousands of fans can only be qualified as an outstanding success for the disgraced world number one.

The American teed off at 8 am with his pal Fred Couples, just as the gates were flung open to a colourful mass of patrons for the first time this year.

Golfing pilgrims have come from all over the world to worship at one of the sacred sites of the game and if Woods had feared boos or catcalls, those worries were immediately allayed.

You don’t sully the atmosphere at Mecca or the Wailing Wall by screaming abuse and Woods heard only warm applause and cheers as he teed off.

Worryingly for those who have slapped their hard earned cash on Woods winning a fifth green jacket this week, his opening tee shot finished not in the middle of the first fairway but on the edge of the adjacent ninth hole, some 40 yards left of his intended target.

But that hardly seemed to bother the thousands who snaked up the hill at the opening hole to see the world’s most famous athlete. Freak Show it wasn’t.

“Welcome back Tiger,” shouted one fan. “We missed you Tiger,” called another.

Woods appeared to appreciate the gestures of goodwill and in contrast to his sometimes aloof behaviour in the past, he tipped his cap and nodded in appreciation, mouthing thanks yous as he moved along.

With hardly a breath of wind and the manicured green of Augusta shimmering under a scorching sun, Woods looked at ease on his favourite playground even if his golf was obviously rusty.

Sporting a goatee and wearing grey slacks, a white Nike cap and a white polo shirt with feint grey, pink and yellow horizontal stripes, he soaked up the reaction of the fans and appeared eager to interact.

“Great morning for golf, Tiger,” he heard as he moved along.

“It sure is,” he replied.

No-one but the players and their caddies are allowed beyond the gallery ropes from Monday but Woods’s closest advisors were not far away.

His coach Hank Haney, his manager Mark Steinberg and his spokesman Glenn Greenspan, the former Masters media director, monitored reaction as they shuffled along with the rest of the multitude.

But there was no shortage of humour either.

At the 240-yard, par three fourth, Woods drew a long iron from his bag but his caddie, Steve Williams, stopped his boss and handed him a hybrid.

“Getting older,” Woods quipped for the crowd to peals of laughter.

His first effort carved off to the right and finished in the front trap. Calling for another ball, he pulled the second. 

“Oh boy,” he sighed as he stooped to pick up his tee. “It’s a hard hole from here.”

Couples striped a long iron into the back of the green but he was diplomatic afterwards when asked about Woods’, who failed to escape from the bunker at the first attempt, hit a few clumsy chips at the fifth and hit a tree with his tee shot at the 13th.

“He’s playing very well. He’s doing great,” Couples said. “We’ve played a lot of practice rounds at Augusta. Basically, we’re buddies and he is doing great. I’m happy for him that he’s playing here this  week. I think he’s fine.”

“The reception  was awesome. It’s the way it should be. He knows he made a blunder and he’s back here to play golf to make up for it. Good  golf will do that and bad  golf will do that. He’s a good kid.”

Cheered warmly as he walked through Amen Corner for the first time this week, Woods was joined by Jim Furyk on the 13th green.

Furyk will be trying to beat Woods to the title but Couples conceded that while the game’s top player will as intimidating as ever, he cannot be considered the hot favourite because of his lack of five month lay off. 

Couples said: “His intimidation factor is always there. But you have to play good golf and he hasn’t played much. It would be crazy for me to say he’s not going to do well, but it would be crazy for me to say he’s the guy to beat becuase he hasn’t played a competitive round of golf in five or six months.

“Guys are intimidating by the way they play golf. He just has the total game. If he’s in the lead on Sunday, he’ll have no problem. If he’s not, he’ll say ‘This is what I need to work on. But I came out and I played and I saw everybody and am ready to play again.’ Or he can win here and leave everybody.”

The reaction of the fans told Woods that the process of forgiveness has already begun. That makes him a winner before a shot has been struck in anger.