AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — The most noticeable difference between the Tiger Woods who left and the one who came back is a pair of dark wraparound shades.
Cynics might think Woods donned the sunglasses to keep eye contact to a minimum. It’s nothing that sinister.
“The pollen is just killing my eyes,” he said. “I’ve been sneezing and hacking. So trying to keep it out of my eyes the best I can.”
Apparently, just about every question about how Woods’ would regain his footing after a stunning fall from grace five months ago has been answered. At least inside the gates of a golf course. He followed up a 68 on Thursday, his best opening round ever at the Masters, with a tougher-than-it-looked, two-under-par 70 on Friday and the only thing he was asked about afterward — besides the sunglasses — was the state of his game.
“How did the course play?”
“Can you take us through your second shot on 17?”
“Do you like your spot on the leaderboard right now?”
“Do you feel like you might start living your more normal schedule?”
Woods handled every one but the last one with relative ease.
“I would like to, but I don’t know,” he said. “I’m going to have to evaluate some things after this event.”
His on-course conduct won’t be part of the review. The new fan-friendly Woods casually handed his glove to a spectator walking off the tee at the third hole, doffed his cap in response to another standing ovation at the 12th, and good as his word, tamped down both his celebrations and tantrums the rest of the way around Augusta National.
The fist-pumps after a pair of birdies dropped at Nos. 13 and 15 were even more muted than those a day earlier. His knees buckled a little less when he missed another makeable birdie try at No. 16. And keep in mind that Matt Kuchar, who played with Woods both days, thought he was already surprisingly low-key on Thursday.
“I read a quote he had about just trying to be more level on the golf course and there were a few putts yesterday I expected maybe a little bit bigger reaction,” Kuchar said.
What didn’t surprise Kuchar was the way Woods played.
“I think that after he won the U.S. Open on one leg, we all realized that he could pretty much do anything. And never would we really second guess his ability on the golf course. It’s pretty amazing.
“I have no idea what he’s been doing the last 144 days, there’s no telling,” he added. “It was pretty amazing how he could hide as well as he could, for so long.”
Other than a stint in rehab, the only thing we know for certain about Woods’ whereabouts since his SUV careened out of control down the driveway is that he spent a lot of time on the practice range. He’s been asked several times about how he managed to stay so sharp without the benefit of even one warm-up tournament, and each time Woods replied the same way.
“As I said in here yesterday, it’s very similar to what Hogan went through coming off the accident,” Woods said, referring to Ben Hogan, but conveniently leaving out the fact that Hogan didn’t crash his own car.
“Just couldn’t play that much and when you can’t play, you have to concentrate on your practice. It would have been nice to actually have a normal schedule and play, but that’s neither here nor there. I had to make sure that I got everything I possibly could out of every practice session,” he added.
So far, that time appears well spent. Win or lose, when the Masters ends Sunday, Woods will have to sit down and map out his schedule for the rest of the year. It will almost certainly include the U.S. Open in June at Pebble Beach, where Woods won in 2000 en route to posting the lowest score ever in relation to par at an Open. The month after that, the British Open returns to St. Andrews, where Woods has won twice.
For the last five months, all those people who thought the sex scandal that cost Woods his reputation, some sponsors and fans would also cost him the chance to pass Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors.
Now they might have to reassess.
On the admittedly slim evidence of just two rounds, his future looks bright enough that Woods actually might have a reason to wear shades for something other than pollen.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org