AUGUSTA, Ga. – Who is this guy?
That’s what you kept asking yourself on the most unusual Monday in Masters history.
You wondered when you saw Tiger Woods keep making eye contact with patrons as he made his way around Augusta National in his first round of golf in front of the public since his fall from grace almost five months ago.
You wondered when Woods kept flashing those white teeth and shooting smiles and “thank you’s” at patrons who shouted encouragement.
This guy didn’t look like the warrior in golf cleats we’ve come to know. He looked unusually eager to connect with fans he never seemed to notice before. He looked out of sorts in the role, though. He even looked nervous in his practice round with Fred Couples.
Woods admitted he was more nervous stepping out in front of fans than he was sitting in front of media in his highly anticipated news conference after his practice round. He wasn’t sure how fans would greet him after nearly five months of reading the lurid details of his marital infidelities.
“As far as getting out there, I was definitely more nervous,” Woods said. “That first tee, I didn’t know what to expect.”
Woods was also a different man in the media room, contrite and humble answering 47 questions over 33 minutes. He seemed to be speaking more freely from the heart than he did in his 13-minute scripted apology last month and his five- to six-minute interviews on Golf Channel and ESPN.
“I need to be a better man going forward,” he said.
It was out on the course, though, that Woods most revealed the promise of an evolving new man. He’s either perpetrating another masterful deception in a bid to rehabilitate his shattered image, or he’s in the early stages of a metamorphosis as a man. Woods said in that public apology that his actions would mean more than his words in the coming months. While skeptics will wonder if this is all about rebuilding his brand, there was no denying the difference in his demeanor during his practice round.
Woods typically plays with blinders, even in his practice rounds. In the past, spectators weren’t much different than the trees he played around.
“Usually, I kind of focus on placements of shots and getting ready,” Woods said. “But today was a little bit different.”
Little bit? Woods wasn’t exactly the second coming of Arnold Palmer Monday, but we’ve never seen him lock eyes with fans like he did here. His practice round seemed to be as much about connecting with fans as getting ready for the tournament.
“Tiger was a little more chatty than usual,” Furyk said.
At the back of the seventh green, Woods made a woeful putting stroke, never coming close to the hole.
“Nice putt,” a patron yelled.
Woods turned and flashed yet another smile.
“If that’s a nice putt, I’d like to see a bad one,” Woods answered back.
The fans behind the green cackled with laughter. It was another icebreaker on this strange day. Woods was greeted politely with a smattering of applause on the first tee. Patrons were warm and respectful but not overly enthusiastic. There were shouts of “Welcome back!” and even a few “We love you’s,” but the atmosphere lacked the snap, crackle and pop you normally see in the gallery following Woods. Couples got heartier welcomes on the tee boxes.
Polite and warm was more than good enough for Woods in his bid to reconnect with fans.
“Just trying to be more respectful of the game,” Woods said. “Acknowledge the fans like I did today. That was just an incredible reception today for all 18 holes. Show my appreciation for them. I haven’t done that in the past few years and that was wrong of me.
“So many kids have looked up to me and so many fans have supported me over the years. Just wanted to say thank you to them, especially going over all of this the past few months. It really put things in perspective for me and how much I have appreciated, or, underappreciated the fans in the game.”
Couples said the conversation was all about golf.
“I’m not a life coach,” Couples said. “If we were out for dinner and he brought it up, I would give him my opinion but this is about golf.”
Couples noticed Woods’ attempt to connect with fans.
“He knows he made blunders,” Couples said. “He’s back to make up for it.”
Woods wasn’t as focused on his game, and you could tell in his waywardness. He blew his first tee shot left into the ninth fairway. He left a shot in the bunker at the fourth hole. He blew another shot in the trees at the eighth hole.
“I thought he hit his irons well, but he hit a few loose drives,” Furyk said.
Couples didn’t seem sure what to expect from Woods once the tournament begins.
“He’s the best player in the world, but he hasn’t played in awhile,” Couples said. “I’d be crazy to say he won’t play well, but I’d be crazy to say he is the guy to beat.”
Win or lose, Woods is evolving. We saw the first glimpses of his attempts to be a different man.