AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — Except for watching Phil Mickelson slip into another green jacket, Tiger Woods should have few complaints about his week at the Masters.
He tied a tournament record by making four eagles. He was never out of the top 10 from the opening round. He had his best 72-hole score at Augusta National in five years.
None of that might have been possible without a spontaneous and warm reception on the first tee Thursday.
Woods might have looked like the same player, but he wasn’t the same person. The fans who came to watch his golf could not ignore the sordid lifestyle that kept him away from the game in the first place.
That’s why the cheers were so important.
They put him at ease from the start, and he felt more comfortable as the week went on, even as his swing got worse.
“Overall, it was a good week,” Woods said Sunday after he tied for fourth.
The next step?
Woods didn’t say when he would play again. He said he needed to “take a little time off and kind of re-evaluate things.” If he sticks to a normal schedule, Woods could show up at Quail Hollow or The Players Championship or even the Memorial. Those are the three places he typically plays before the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.
Just don’t get the idea the next step will be forward.
All of those tournaments, or any others he chooses to play this year, will be everything Augusta National is not.
They will be public golf tournaments, with fans who won’t worry about losing their season badges. What he hears from the crowd sitting around the island green on the 17th hole at the TPC Sawgrass might be a little different from what he heard in Amen Corner.
And the scrutiny will not stop.
Woods set himself up for failure when he pledged to tone down his temper — the celebrations and the cursing. He caused quite the stir in the opening round when he flung his iron to the ground after an errant shot to the 14th. A year ago, no one would have noticed. Now, it was proof that Woods hadn’t changed a lick.
He seemed to reach a boiling point when CBS Sports analyst Peter Kostis asked him about controlling his emotion without eliminating it.
“I think people are making way too much of a big deal of this thing,” Woods said. “I was not feeling good. I hit a big snipe off the first hole, and I don’t know how people can think I should be happy about that. I hit a wedge from 45 yards and basically bladed it over the green. These are not things I normally do. So I’m not going to be smiling, and not going to be happy.”
There is some truth to that. Woods at least showed some signs of improvement with his temper, and he was more engaging with the fans over four days than he had been over the last 14 years.
Then came two words that got him into more hot water — Ben Hogan. While talking about how he could produce good scores after not competing in five months, Woods spoke about the intensity of his practice sessions.
“It’s very similar to what Hogan went through coming off the accident,” Woods said. “Just couldn’t play that much, and when you can’t play, you have to concentrate on your practice.”
Woods was talking only about preparations for a tournament, but he was panned for even comparing himself with Hogan because the two accidents were nothing alike. Hogan’s car crashed into a bus, and he threw himself across the passenger seat to save his wife. Woods’ SUV ran over a fire hydrant and into a tree, and his wife saved him — at least that’s what he said.
This is the kind of inspection every answer, every act is going to get — maybe for the rest of the year. First comes the next PGA Tour event he plays with fewer restrictions on the gallery. Then comes the next major, where the volume is cranked up, and the U.S. Open is about as public as it gets. St. Andrews is a home game for the British tabloids, and there might be a trip to the Ryder Cup in Wales, which is rancorous even in good times.
This could be a long year. The Masters might have looked like a start, but for Woods, it was more like spring training.
As much as Woods might be applauded in some corners for the way he played, he acted as though the last five months never happened. That was in sharp contrast to Mickelson, who also is dealing with a shattered world, albeit far different circumstances.
It was jarring to see Amy Mickelson making her way toward the 18th green, her first time on a golf course since the shocking news 11 months ago that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. She had support all around her, from close friend Jennifer Mackay (the wife of Mickelson’s caddie) to her children and her husband. Mickelson wouldn’t let go of her hand.
Mickelson won two tournaments at the end of last year, but even then he didn’t look the same, didn’t have the same kind of energy. While her outlook is good, the medication his wife is taking has made for an emotional roller-coaster.
Woods has gone through five months of humiliation from being caught cheating on his wife, some of that in therapy, yet he looked no different from when he last played.
Would it have been different if Woods had won the Masters? Maybe. And based on his performance in his first tournament back, that day might be coming sooner rather than later.
But the inspection of his game and his behavior and his words won’t end with the Masters no matter how many autographs he signs.