AUGUSTA, GA. - "Good luck out there, guys," Tiger Woods says blankly to his playing partners Thursday at the Masters, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Bae Sang-Moon, as he strides to the first tee precisely at 10:35 a.m.
"Fore, please," an Augusta National Golf Club official says, "on the tee, Tiger Woods."
Woods puts his tee in the ground, backs off, takes a couple of rehearsal swings as he stares down the first fairway, steps up to the ball and swings. Thwack.
There's dead silence from the crowd, 15 fans deep in some places.
Woods's ball goes immediately left, a hook in golf parlance. Groans fill the air. "He snap-hooked that one," someone says. A few minutes later, as the trio leaves the tee box, someone else says: "That was the worst drive I've ever seen."
It's not a good start for Woods.
The four-time Masters champion has put his personal troubles (infidelity revelations, divorce) and health issues (knee and Achilles heel injuries) behind him, and the new swing he has developed with Canadian instructor Sean Foley has finally matured.
Woods won a PGA Tour event two weeks ago, ending a 30-month official title drought on the tour, and he arrived in Augusta as the man to beat. Well, one of two or three anyway.
Woods makes nearly the same tee shot on the second hole, sending his ball into a hazard and costing him a penalty shot. But if these shots are ominous signs, they don't hurt Woods on the scoresheet. He makes pars on both holes with brilliant recoveries, then rebounds on the third with a birdie to suddenly find himself on the first page of the leaderboard.
Where else would he be?
Woods, 36, has owned golf's first major of the season over the past 18 years. He won the tournament in a runaway as a skinny 21-year-old in 1997, and has added three more titles to his collection since.
The Masters and its fans, or "patrons" as they're called at Augusta National, revere their past champions and Woods is no exception, despite his transgressions.
Although Augusta National chairman Billy Payne famously dressed Woods down when he emerged from his post-scandal hiding in 2010 to enter the Masters, there doesn't seem to be any scorn or hostility on the grounds this year.
If anything, a mood of forgiveness prevails. His troubles seem part of a distant past. There's also a sense of anticipation.
The patrons following Woods, especially in the early going, seem as nervous as the golfer (a snap-hook is often a sign of anxiety) at the outset and they didn't exhale until Woods dropped his birdie putt on the third hole.
Overall, they're pulling for Woods to win. A victory would likely reignite Tigermania. TV ratings have already been rising over the past several months as his play improved and he got into contention more often during the final rounds of tournaments. A win would make a clear statement that he's back and render his scandal as part of another era.
Drawing fan admiration
Win Johnson waited 2 1/2 hours in the hot sun just to get Woods's autograph.
It was a big gamble because Woods has never been much for mingling with the crowds that come to see him play.
But the 15-year-old from Little Rock, Ark., got lucky. Standing in a fenced-off area near Augusta National's magnificent new practice range, Win came face to face with his golf hero.
Win already had the signatures of other players, but it was Woods's he wanted most on his yellow nylon Masters flag.
Woods stopped by the fence as he was exiting the range, grabbed Win's flag and signed his name right in the centre of the Augusta National's iconic logo, which features an outline of the United States and a flagstick coming out of Georgia.
There wasn't much eye contact or chatter from Woods as he went down the line of autograph seekers, all of whom were children or teens, but Win couldn't have been happier, high-fiving some of the others around him and holding the flag up as his father, Mike, snapped a few pictures.
"He's such a stud," Win responds when asked why he likes Woods. "I like him a lot. I'm rooting for him. I've always been a Tiger fan."
Mike Johnson says he's also a huge Woods supporter. Asked if he was troubled by the golfer's personal scandal and long dormant period – Woods went 30 months without winning an official tournament – Johnson says he was indeed disappointed by what Woods had done. But like many Americans, he's a big believer in the redemption story that follows hubris and shocking personal behaviour.
"Forgiveness goes for everyone as well," he says.
Johnson says he also forgave Michael Vick, the NFL star jailed for starting a dogfighting ring who has since returned to the top of pro football. "I just hope Tiger has his head on straight now, but, yes, I'm cheering for him. He's a winner."
It's difficult to say whether the father and son from Arkansas represent the entire fan base here. But it appeared that way.
As Woods practised at the east end of the range, a knot of spectators crowded to the end of the grandstand near him. When he headed to the west end, to the putting green, the crowd dissipated.
During practice rounds large galleries moved with him. From overhead, the crowd would look like liquid pouring alongside him.
Sponsors testing water
On the course, Woods's silver golf bag features a large logo on it representing Fuse Science, the nutrition-drink maker that has been one of the only companies to endorse the golfer who once pulled in $100-million (U.S.) annually in endorsements. Dropped by Accenture, Gillette, General Motors, Gatorade and AT&T, Nike and Electronic Arts are among the small minority that continued to support him.
But with the scandal now more than two years in the past, Woods is still the most compelling golfer on the PGA Tour, perhaps even the most compelling athlete in the world. Many corporate sponsors will be happy to ride the bandwagon with fans.
Last October, Woods signed a sponsorship deal with luxury watch maker Rolex.
"Anybody who is invested in the game of golf or has golf in their corporate sponsorship strategy … is obviously going to have an interest in the most dominant, iconic player in the game," says Chris Armstrong, vice-president of management and director of the Canadian practice for Wasserman Media Group, a global sports and entertainment agency.
"Corporate sponsors have taken the temperature of their shareholders and other companies with whom they do business and realize it might be okay to wade back in to that pool," says David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California. "They may not jump in right away with a victory on Sunday afternoon, but I think you will see them slowly return as he continues to rehabilitate himself."
Those with a vested interest in Woods's performance, most notably Nike and the PGA Tour, are taking a low key, wait-and-see approach to his appearance at this year's Masters tournament. But that may change come Monday, if Woods adds another green jacket to his closet.
"[Advertisers]can pivot pretty quickly and figure out a marketing campaign, a slogan, they can mix the highlights, they can do that in a pretty quick turnaround," Carter says. "Just because it hasn't been vetted yet and we haven't heard about doesn't mean it's not fully in place to be rolled out as its necessary."
Woods's mood reflective
There's a perception that Tiger Woods is a lone wolf, but an observer who followed him around this week would conclude otherwise.
Woods showed a lightness in the days leading into the first competitive round Thursday. He took his practice sessions seriously, as any pro embarking on an important tournament would, but he also seemed to be carefree and in his element.
He played relaxed practice rounds with fellow competitors Mark O'Meara, who's been a mentor, and Sean O'Hair, who introduced Woods to swing coach Foley. O'Hair says Woods was a pleasant playing companion, offering helpful tips on how to play the idiosyncratic course.
On the practice range Wednesday, Woods hit laser shot after shot into the blue sky above, but stopped to greet a few players. Hunter Mahan, another Foley disciple, was among them and even took one of Woods's clubs and hit a shot.
As Woods moved down the range toward the chipping and putting areas, he stopped to chat with two-time Masters winner Jose Maria Olazabal and to joke around with another player's caddy as they discussed U.S. college basketball.
Following behind was Glenn Greenspan, Woods's publicist and the former communications director of Augusta National, and Joe LaCava, the easy-going veteran caddy who took over the most famous bag in golf last year, after Woods's acrimonious split with former bagman Steve Williams.
Maybe it's LaCava's influence. Maybe it was the setting – Woods can't help but feel at home at Augusta National. Maybe it was the splendid spring weather. Maybe it's the passing of time. Woods's life as a tour golfer – and a single father – seem to be more stable, now that his personal and health troubles and swing overhaul under Foley are in the rearview mirror.
He looked content.
He even displayed a new kind of openness during his press conference earlier this week. He shared an anecdote about his experiences at the Masters years ago, recounting how he played a money game with legends Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus in 1995 as an amateur.
Perhaps most surprising of all, he had kind words to say about some of his rivals, including his heir apparent, Rory McIlroy.
Woods has long used intimidation to gain a mental edge on his opponents, but this week, he was effusive in his praise of McIlroy, whom he got know when the two played practice and competitive rounds together in Abu Dhabi this year.
With a report from Dave McGinn