CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Tiger Woods entered the room with little fanfare, and without the constant clicking of camera shutters.
His press conference lasted only 16 minutes. The PGA Tour required an admission ticket for the media, although that wasn’t necessary. There were 76 seats in the interview room, and 24 of them were empty.
On the golf course, Woods received warm applause when he was introduced on the first tee. The loudest cheer came at the end of his pro-am round Wednesday at Quail Hollow when he knocked in a 25-foot birdie putt before thousands of fans soaking up warm sunshine.
“I have to say, this feels a heck of a lot more normal than the Masters did,” Woods said.
The Quail Hollow Championship is another step toward Woods trying to get back to normal, at least with his golf.
Everything about this tournament was going to be different from Augusta National, where the world’s No. 1 player made his celebrated return to competition after five months of fallout from his extramarital affairs. Quail Hollow doesn’t have the magnitude of the stage, the size of the gallery or the level of media interest.
Even so, this is the first PGA Tour event Woods is playing where tickets were sold to the general public. The behavior was not much different from three weeks ago at the Masters, and Woods wasn’t surprised.
“I’ll tell you what, the people here have always been very gracious, very excited about this event,” Woods said. “These fans here really get into the event, and again, with a great field like this, I think it’ll be another great week.”
He caught a couple of jeers upon leaving the 18th green when he walked past fans wanting his autograph, but it was a claustrophobic walkway toward the clubhouse, and Woods stopped about 30 yards away and signed for 20 minutes.
He went out of his way to make eye contact with the fans, as he did at the Masters. Woods even posed for a picture with a kindergarten student on his way to the second tee.
Perhaps that will change when the tournament begins on a world-class course with another strong field that includes four of the top five players in the world ranking. Phil Mickelson is making his first start since winning the Masters, although his week got off to a rough start when he withdrew from the pro-am with a stomach illness.
Woods is to start Thursday morning with Stewart Cink and Angel Cabrera, and he will play Friday afternoon when the gallery typically is at its most vocal. If there are fans wanting to heckle him, that might be the time.
“Whether they do or not, it’s happened before, and it happened before any of this ever happened,” Woods said. “I’ve dealt with that before. But as far as the fans here over the years, they’ve been great. There’s no reason why that shouldn’t continue.”
One change Woods wants to see is with his golf.
He sounded bitter in his interview with CBS Sports after his final round at the Masters, more angry at a missed opportunity than pleased with a tie for fourth having not played a tournament in five months.
“But given a little time to reflect on it, it was an incredible week,” Woods said. “I think it went as well as it could have possibly gone, and obviously I didn’t do what I needed to do on the weekend, but after not playing for that long and coming back and finishing fourth, I think that’s pretty reasonable.”
Woods wasn’t terribly crisp during his pro-am round, hitting his first two drives deep into the trees. Then again, he didn’t look all that sharp during practice at Augusta National, either.
Mickelson is also trying to work off some rust, although the layoff was far more brief and a break worth celebrating. Of his four majors, none was quite like this – a Masters victory after a year of turmoil at home as his wife battles breast cancer, and Amy coming to the golf course to greet him when he walked off the 18th hole.
Mickelson slipped on the green jacket the next morning while fulfilling a promise to his three kids – a visit to Krispy Kreme for some glazed doughnuts – and spent the entire week going to their after-school activities and taking in a San Diego Padres game.
“When I take two weeks off, the first week I usually don’t touch a club, which was the case this past time off,” Mickelson said. “But for the last five, six days I’ve been practicing pretty hard. I feel like my game is starting to come around. I see the improvement each day, and I feel like it’s back to a level close to where it was at Augusta, so I certainly have high expectations this week and next.”
Mickelson already has one distinction as the only player to win three straight tournaments with Woods in the field. They are playing in the same event the next two weeks, both hopeful of building some momentum.
“I think just two weeks in a row competing … I’ll have a better barometer of what normal really feels like,” Woods said. “Because I haven’t done that in a while.”