Tiger mark III trains sights on Augusta
It was like watching Tiger Woods, but without the front. The strut, the swagger, the arrogance - all gone.
Instead a softly spoken, fairly sheepish man turned up in Woods's golf kit.
I say "much-awaited" because most people with a passing interest in Woods were keen to see what sort of treatment he would get from the media. Some think the whole business is little more than tittle-tattle and that's fine, too.
But certainly the cheers, applause and shouts of encouragement - tentative at first - from the patrons during his practice round suggested they were just glad to have him back, whatever their views of his off-course behaviour.
Woods has been criticised for the way he has managed his re-entry into public life, from his 19 February public apology when the press were kept at a different venue, to the two five-minute one-on-one interviews he gave a few weeks back.
So now they had him at their mercy, what sort of treatment did the 180 specially accredited media dish out? Fairly gentle, is the answer, and Woods responded with a grace often missing in the past.
Woods appeared more humble in his first news conference
But then what were we really expecting? There were no rules beforehand about certain questions being off limits, but this was a golf crowd at the year's most exclusive tournament. He wasn't going to go into sordid details about his affairs, and you could argue, why should he?
Woods entered the room with a smile just after 2pm, still in his golf shoes after the morning's practice, a clever touch to "deformalise" an occasion that must have been on his mind for a while.
He was introduced by Craig Heatley, an Augusta Green Jacket and chairman of the club's media committee, before making some introductory remarks about how nice the crowds had been to him and apologising to the other players for disrupting their lives over the past few months.
Woods insisted he wasn't as nervous answering questions as he had been going out to play, and went on to talk about how he had been living in denial during his affairs, about how he intended to be more respectful to the game, how missing his son's first birthday when he was in rehab is something he will regret for the rest of his life, and how surprised and touched he had been by his reception from fans and peers alike.
Some questions that did need to be cleared up were about his links with controversial Canadian doctor Anthony Galea, who is now the subject of federal investigations in his home country about supplying performance-enhancing drugs. Woods vehemently denied ever taking any illegal substances, explaining he'd used the doctor to help with his legitimate rehab from a knee injury and a subsequent Achilles problem, which was not widely known before.
The only sign of slight bristles were when he was quizzed about the nature of his ongoing therapy, which he said was private, and was when he was asked if he was addicted to prescription painkillers and whether they played a role in the car crash back in November. "Well, the police investigated the accident and they cited me $166 and it's a closed case," was all he said.
One other snippet that did raise an eyebrow is when he said that he was pleased to be back with caddie Steve Williams. Woods insisted the pair are great friends and are "honest with one another" but Williams has previously denied any knowledge of Woods's affairs.
But the main thrust of the 35-minute proceedings was that Woods is beginning his golfing rehabilitation - albeit with a caveat.
"Nothing's changed, I'm going out there trying to win this thing," he smiled when asked about his expectations this week after four months off.
Twelve months ago in the same room he was asked a similar question about whether he expected to win. "Always," he fired back, honestly but aggressively.
This time, though, it was delivered without hubris. And he went on to explain that no victory or major title en route to breaking Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 is worth it if he cannot become a better man.
"I was at peace earlier in my career and I've had some great years. Unfortunately what I've done over the past years has been just terrible to my family. The fact I've won golf tournaments is irrelevant. It's the pain and damage I've caused," he said.
"It's not about championships. It's about how you live your life. I'm trying as hard as I possibly can every day to get my life better and stronger and if I win championships along the way so be it."
Members of the media were keen to put a question to the world number one
Woods's career can roughly be split into five phases: stage one is the period from 1997 to midway through 2002 when he collected eight major titles. He then went through a period of swing rebuilding - some called it a "slump" - which saw him go 10 majors without a win. Phase three took him up to the astounding US Open victory of 2008 when he took his major tally to 14 despite a severely injured leg.
The fourth age of Tiger came after a nine-month lay-off for knee surgery following that Torrey Pines win and lasted until the bombshell dropped of his extra-marital affairs in December. The Woods here at Augusta, then, is Tiger mark five.
Woods, after all he's been through and put his family through in the past few months, might prefer to see it as mark III - simply the early years, the affairs and now a new dawn.
"It feels fun again and that's something that's been missing," he said. "Have I been winning, competing, doing well? Yeah, I have. But when you live a life where you're lying all the time, life is not fun. That's been stripped all away and here I am. And it feels fun again."
With his reaffirmed commitment to Buddhism, Woods has vowed to get "less hot" on the course, meaning we should see fewer of the unsavoury boorish aspects of his behaviour but consequently less of the excitable fist-pumping that crowds love when he goes on a charge.
However you analyse it, and despite some ring-rusty drives in practice, Woods is still the favourite to win a fifth Masters title this week. The question is, can his legendary focus block out all of the baggage he has created? And does a calmer, nicer Woods still have the fire and the swagger needed to win?
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