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Original Issue

A Sorry Start

Between apologies Tiger Woods showed flashes of the prescandal player, but despite his fourth-place finish, his first start in five months will be remembered for wildly erratic play

What surprised you most? Was it when Tiger Woods showed up for a pre-Masters press conference from the back of the room, tapping scribes on the shoulder on his way to the dais? Or when, playing his first competitive round in nearly five months, he went around Augusta National in 68 shots?

Was it on the 2nd hole in the final round, when Woods, within shouting distance of the lead, left a simple bunker shot in a greenside trap like a Sunday duffer? Or nearly three hours later on 14, when, after pushing an eight-foot birdie putt, he made a casual swipe at his two-footer for par and missed that one too? His legendary focus was AWOL.

Were you surprised by the three-wood Woods played from the 13th tee all week? That club selection left the man he played with for all four rounds, K.J. Choi, scratching his head. For much of his career Woods would smash a hard-drawing driver there that would leave him with a nine-iron or pitching wedge into the par-5, but last week there was no sign that Woods was comfortable hitting draws with his driver. Early Saturday afternoon, on the massive new Augusta National driving range for a preround warmup (with his coach Hank Haney standing like a sentinel behind him), Woods hit about two dozen drivers, many erratically, working up a big sweat before heading for the 1st tee feeling lost.

Or maybe this Saturday-night scene would've surprised you most: Woods, leaving the club after a long day on the course and a long session on the range, heard a man call out, "Tiger, I'm from Kenya—can I get your autograph?" Woods stopped his car, walked over to the man and signed. If you know Tiger's patterns, you know that move was downright weird.

But his spitting habit was about the same. He wore, in a new kind of fashion statement for him, dark shades all week, saying that the pollen was "just killing my eyes." And his self-flagellation/profanity-use reached new levels of hilarity. The highlight in that department came on Saturday when he responded to his slightly short tee shot on the par-3 6th with, "Tiger Woods—you suck! Goddammit." It's a good bet that somewhere in greater Kansas City, a 60-year-old man with two green jackets has the letter of complaint already written in his head.

When it comes to how he should change and what he should do, everyone has advice for Tiger Woods. Here he is, one of the greatest and most dominating athletes ever, but lately all he does is apologize. On Saturday he apologized for his on-course outburst. In February, in his big made-for-TV non--press conference. In March, with his two quick-hit, five-minute TV interviews. On the Monday before the tournament, in his half-hour session with 180 reporters. To his wife. To his mother. To the memory of his father. To his sponsors. To his fans. To his friends. To his employees. And, of course, to the children, in America and across the world. Evidently, his serial cheating wounded the world's child population deeply, as did his (occasional) club throwing and (more occasional) cussing.

Woods has been aloof—from fans and reporters and officialdom—for most of his career. He has never really adopted golf's ancient model of grace in defeat or even victory. But now that he's an apologetic, self-admitted serial adulterer in recovery, the floodgates have opened to his critics.

Billy Payne, the Augusta National chairman, was the most recent to chime in. On Wednesday, shortly before the par-3 contest, with the whole golf world focused on golf again, Payne, reading a statement in his state-of-the-Masters press conference, chose to turn the focus back to Woods's private life (My Shot, G24). "It is not simply the degree of his conduct that is so egregious here," Payne said. "It's the fact that he disappointed all of us, and more important, our kids and our grandkids."

He asked rhetorically, "Is there a way forward? I hope yes. I think yes. But certainly his future will never again be measured only by his performance against par, but measured by the sincerity of his efforts to change."

Well, if you take those words literally, you'd likely give Woods low grades last week. His changes were modest, and as for sincerity, it all seemed a little forced. For the most part Woods picked up right where he had left off, as a man who plays golf not to make friends but to dominate the competition. From Thursday on, when talking to reporters, Woods was his characteristic unrevealing self. Asked about the chairman's public admonishment, Woods said, "I was disappointed in myself too."

Watching Woods, the proudest of men, march down Augusta's fairways last week was a strange experience, given all we know about him now. Nearly everywhere Woods went he received respectful applause from the Masters galleries, but there was no whooping, nothing raucous.

He is now not only the world's greatest golfer but also a national punch line. About five hours after his Saturday round of 70, Tina Fey, on Saturday Night Live, played a Vegas dancer--Tiger girlfriend named Ashland St. Cloud, while Kenan Thompson played Tiger in a spoof of the creepy black-and-white Nike ad in which Woods stares silently into the camera and the voice of his father says, "I want to know what you're thinking." On SNL a faux Earl asks his son not to use his voice after he's dead "to sell sneakers after a sex scandal."

And the next day, there was the real Tiger Woods, trying to work it out on the practice tee again, and there was Tida Woods, Tiger's tiny mother, fighting through the crowds to watch her son. Between shots Phil Knight, the founder of Nike, walked with her, arm-in-arm. Tiger's wife, Elin, and their two children, Sam and Charlie, were nowhere to be seen. Mark Steinberg, Tiger's manager, was at Augusta, walking every hole with Tiger, who made four eagles last week and 17 birdies, but also 14 bogeys. Tiger can blame every club in the bag but should linger over the driver and the putter.

At one point Steinberg stopped and considered this question: What motivates Tiger now? He thought for part of a minute and said, "He's a professional golfer, a good one, trying to be the best one ever. He's coming back from something he's not terribly proud of, and he wants to win. He wants to win for his fans. For his family. And for the people who have supported him."

Sunday nights when Tiger Woods does not win are never pretty, and Sunday at Augusta was no exception. Steve Williams quickly changed out of his caddie overalls and said, "He didn't putt well enough to win." He said three-wood was plenty of club on 13 and that as a golfer Tiger was picking up where he left off.

Maybe in other ways too. In his brief postround remarks, Woods said, "I only enter events to win, and I didn't get it done." No nod to Phil or to the people who put on the Masters. In fact, the opposite. Woods left the club not in a tournament-issued Mercedes, which nearly all the other players used, but in a giant Chevrolet Suburban. He was still wearing his golf shoes, and he climbed into the front passenger seat, sunglasses on, eyes straight ahead, looking smaller than usual.

Who knows why Payne felt it was necessary to publicly lecture Woods, but few would dispute the deep truth in one of his comments. The chairman said of Woods, "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."

His words brought to mind Arnold Palmer and Amy Mickelson, Bruce Edwards and the old SNL bit in which Chris Farley interviews Paul McCartney about the famous lyric near the final spins of Abbey Road:

And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.

Farley asks McCartney, "Is it true?"

And McCartney says, "Yes, in my experience, the more you give, the more you get."

It was one week, the first week of the new start, and a T4 finish. If all goes well, Woods will have plenty more chances, and so will we.

Now on

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"Tiger, I'm from Kenya—can I get your autograph?" Woods stopped and signed.


Photograph by FRED VUICH

LONG AND SHORT OF IT Woods played the par-5s in a record 15 under (Mickelson went 12 under) but was four over on the par-3s.



CHARM CAMPAIGN Woods made a special effort to connect with the fans, especially children.