Tiger's Return: Still the Master of His Golf Game

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Shaun Best / Reuters

Tiger Woods chips to the second green during first round play in the 2010 Masters golf tournament in Augusta, Ga.

Say this about Tiger Woods: He doesn't rattle easily.

After a mysterious late-night car wreck, wife Elin's 9-iron through the wrecked SUV window, the painfully public unraveling of his sterling, buttoned-up image, the revelation of his many mistresses and countless embarrassing text-messages, a trip to rehab, and several humiliating televised apologies, Woods returned to competitive golf on Thursday with the best opening round of his glittering Masters career.

Yes, Woods is a golfer again, after 144 days in hell. And yes, he's still mind-blowingly good.

Maybe you're not a golf fan; if that's the case, let me tell you that a birdie is a very good score on a hole, and an eagle is one better, two under par. Even great golfers are delighted to make an eagle on a course as difficult as the storied Augusta National Golf Club.

Woods made two.

And yes, golf fans still love him — maybe not the way you love a best friend or a golden retriever. They love him the way you love mountain peaks or the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Philosophers call it the Sublime, which you love because it takes your breath away.

Like this: Shortly before 2 p.m. on Thursday, the superstar strode to the first tee as the crowd roared. Call it the roar of nostalgia, for here was the Tiger of memory, just as broad-shouldered and wasp-waisted and carved-marble as ever. They roared again when the announcer declared: "Fore, please. Now driving, Tiger Woods." Call that the sentimental roar.

The third roar was the fan-love roar, rising as Woods smashed his first shot on the first hole of a tournament he has won four times in the past 13 years. The ball soared. Woods twirled his club. The ball shrank to a vanishing speck against a cloudy sky. Woods stooped to pick up his tee. Finally, the ball returned to the green Earth, right in the middle of the fairway, in that far-distant land known as Tiger Country.

In recent days some cynics mumbled that the Masters isn't a real test of Woods's future viability, because it is the golf equivalent of a cathedral — rich in ceremony and decorum. Surely the kid gloves would be donned in a place where young men wear blazers to sweep gravel from the walkways, and ushers politely guide patrons to the urinals, and refreshments are cheaper than fast-food, because the usual sports venue price gouging is considered poor manners. Hecklers could never get through the gate because Masters tickets aren't sold to the public; they're inherited, like bone china or shares of Coca-Cola Co. And if somehow a protester gained entrance, he would have thrust into his hand-as all spectators do-a copy of the admonition of tournament founder and golf patron saint, Bobby Jones: "Most distressing to those who love the game of golf is the applauding or cheering of misplays or misfortunes."

And yes, people were polite. But the prodigal son did not get a free pass. On the eve of the tournament, Augusta National Chairman Billy Payne gave Woods a brisk scolding. "I hope he can come to understand that life's greatest rewards are reserved for those who bring joy to the lives of other people," Payne sermonized before his press conference.

Yet nothing bugged Woods, or at least nothing outside of the game of golf itself. A poor shot on the 14th hole brought forth a brief flash of Tiger fury: a "gaaaaad!" and a tossed club. If he noticed the airplanes circling overhead, pulling derisive banners, though, he didn't let on. The first one, referring to Woods' profession of his Buddhism, asked: "Did You Mean Bootyism?" The second one: "Sex Addict: Yeah, right. Sure. Me, Too."

Woods passed unruffled through a tornado alert, only to have the wind drop to nothing as he entered the treacherous Amen Corner, where Masters dreams go to die. Even the weather seemed to forgive him. And Woods was as cool as January on the Carolina coast, answering two of his three bogeys (bad scores, for the golf novices still reading) with eagles on the very next hole.

The first of these bogeys took the full measure of his fans. Woods was battling through squalls of wind and blowing pollen on the par-4 7th hole. He left his second shot short, then chipped the ball past the hole and missed his putt. Were his wheels coming off? "We're behind you, Tiger!" a fan called.

Woods stepped to the 8th tee with a tight smile and proceeded to hit the ball so hard that it sounded squished. "Oooh," the crowd gasped, more in shock than in awe.

A few minutes later, his name appeared-or should we say reappeared-on the leader board.

Tiger's triumphant return wasn't the only thing that made it a great day for golf. Two legends of the game, Fred Couples and Tom Watson — combined age of 110 — stood atop the field after Round One. Crowd-favorite Phil Mickelson was right there with them. Woods finished at 4-under par, two strokes (or one more eagle) behind the leader.

Who would have thought, last Thanksgiving Eve, that the 144 most eventful days of Tiger Woods' life would not involve golf? And who could have imagined that those events would leave the golfer's game with no lasting dents?