AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — Thousands of fans are following Tiger Woods around Augusta National during practice rounds. Millions more around the world will be able to watch when he officially makes his return to golf at the Masters on Thursday.
Woods was put in the next-to-last group for the opening round — his first meaningful shot since his private life unraveled in sordid tales of infidelity five months ago. His 1:42 p.m. tee time fits perfectly into ESPN’s live television coverage.
Joining the world’s No. 1 player will be K.J. Choi and Matt Kuchar.
“It’s funny, because I sort of had a feeling when I left Dallas that it would be cool if I was paired with Tiger, and it happened,” Choi said when he walked off the 18th green Tuesday. “I like playing with big crowds.”
Massive crowds again chased after Woods and Mark O’Meara during a morning practice round, which appeared to be routine until Woods crouched on the 10th green and pulled out his cell phone.
It looked bad, and not just because Augusta National asks players not to take phones onto the course. Only three weeks ago, a porn star who claims to have had a three-year affair with Woods released what she said were text messages from Woods on her Web site.
Turns out Woods was using his phone to videotape O’Meara at work.
“He was helping me with my putting,” he said. “I had a loop in my putting stroke. He wanted to film my putting stroke.”
Woods did not speak on Tuesday, yet he remains very much the center of attention at this Masters.
The first big hurdle was going public — playing golf before fans and speaking to the media for the first time since Nov. 15.
The next big test comes Thursday, when he starts keeping score. Woods twice has gone nine weeks without competition before a major championship — the 2006 U.S. Open after his father died and the 2008 U.S. Open after knee surgery — but he has never come to Augusta National without any type of a tuneup.
Few other golf courses require so much precision, even more when it’s hot and dry as it has been all week.
“It’s a very stressful course to play when you’re in a major championship,” British Open champion Stewart Cink said. “It’s a really difficult test, and it comes at you with every shot. If your game is up to it, and your mentality is up to it, then you can succeed and you can play well and have some confidence.
WATCH ‘TODAY SHOW’ COVERAGE OF TIGER WOODS’ RETURN TO GOLF HERE:
“But if you are wavering in any way, the course just identifies that and it just spits you out.”
Showing up cold at a major without competition has yielded mixed results for Woods. He missed the cut in the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot, and won the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines on a shredded knee that required season-ending surgery a week later.
Winged Foot is not the best course for Woods. Torrey Pines is like his own playground. Augusta National, which has changed dramatically since his second straight green jacket in 2002, is somewhere in between.
“I don’t think anybody expected him to play well in the 2008 U.S. Open,” Phil Mickelson said. “I don’t think anybody out here will question his ability to perform at the highest level, even though he has not competed in however many months. So I think from a player’s point of view, we expect to see the same player that we have always seen.”
This break is more emotional than physical, however.
Woods went 15 weeks from winning in Australia to getting back into a practice routine. He endured a humiliating December as his extramarital affairs were exposed, and he spent most of January and February in therapy.
He skipped a tune-up at Bay Hill, saying he wasn’t ready. It’s not the best way to prepare for the Masters.
“You have to remember that Tiger … has a good ability to bring his game from the practice round to the golf course,” three-time major winner Padraig Harrington said. “He would have liked to have played a little bit, but he’s still capable.”
Capable of making the cut? Contending? Winning?
“No matter how he looks or what he comes up and says, you don’t know fully how this is affecting him inside and how it’s affecting his golf,” Harrington said. “People react differently. I would not be surprised at all if he was contending, and I would not be surprised if he played better golf than ever.
“But there’s obviously a doubt to that, and we will only be able to find that out on Sunday evening.”
The scouting report is not promising.
Jim Furyk, who played the final five holes with Woods during practice on Monday, said the four-time Masters champion was hitting some loose shots. Woods rarely was satisfied with his tee shots on Tuesday, hitting two balls on several holes.
Perhaps no other major championship course changes from practice rounds early in the week to game time on Thursday. The greens seem to get a little faster, the pressure more intense.
Mickelson, however, keeps going back to Torrey Pines two years ago at the U.S. Open.
“This is a golf course he’s won on four times and loves as much as I do and plays it as well as anybody ever has in the history of the game,” he said. “This is a place that I think a lot of people know that he can win on. And it’s going to take a good performance to beat him.”
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