AUGUSTA, Ga. – He looked like the same Tiger Woods, head down as he walked along the first fairway at the Masters, no one suspecting the jangled nerves he felt from taking his golf public for the first time since his private life unraveled.
One fan called out, “Welcome back, Tiger.”
Instead of ignoring him as he has done so often, Woods turned and gave a wave and a smile.
“To be out there in front of the people, where I have done some things that are just horrible, and for the fans to really want to see me play golf again … I mean, that felt great,” Woods said Monday. “That really did.”
Then came another tense moment – facing the media for the first time since he was exposed for cheating on his wife.
He fielded questions with rehearsed answers, refused to go into details about the therapy he sought or state of his marriage, except that his wife won’t be at Augusta National this week. But there was a touch of humility and patience in his voice during a 35-minute press conference.
“I need to be a better man going forward than I was before,” he said. “And just because I’ve gone through treatment doesn’t mean it stops. I’m trying as hard as I possibly can each and every day to get my life better … and stronger. And if I win championships along the way, so be it.”
One thing hasn’t changed.
Woods, a four-time champion who hasn’t hit a shot that mattered since Nov. 15, is not at the Masters simply to make amends.
“Going to go out there and try to win this thing,” he said.
And so ended a most unusual start to the Masters, which might be as tough as any round Woods plays this week.
It was a solid start in the process of restoring his image. Woods clearly was intent on mingling more with the fans than he did before the sex scandal. First, he putted a couple of balls to some kids watching alongside the 18th green. Then, a real surprise: he stopped to sign autographs on the way to the practice range.
He had not played to the crowd since winning the Australian Masters in Melbourne, where fans saw him only as golf’s best player with 82 victories and 14 majors and no rival except history.
His world caved in 12 days later with a car accident outside his home that sent him to the hospital with a busted lip that required five stitches, and a shattered image that might take years to repair.
“A lot has happened in my life over the past five months,” said Woods, who provided a few details and denials in the 47 questions he fielded from reporters who occupied all 207 seats in the media center.
Among the revelations:
• He ruptured the Achilles’ tendon in his right leg in December 2008, two months before his return from knee surgery. Woods said he was taking Vicodin for that and his left knee.
• He began taking Ambien after his father died to help him sleep.
• He was sent to an Orlando, Fla., hospital after his Nov. 27 accident for a sore neck and a cut lip.
• He denied ever taking human growth hormone, performance-enhancing drugs or “any illegal drug.” He said he sought out Canadian doctor Anthony Galea for “blood spinning” because of his treatment on other athletes. Galea’s assistant was caught bringing HGH and other substances into the U.S. last year.
Woods said the government contacted him about his association with Galea and he will cooperate fully, “but as of right now, they have not asked for my time.”
Woods also said he would tone down his temper – and his celebrations.
In his last tournament, he flipped his driver to the turf after an errant tee shot, and the club bounced into and over the gallery. Woods retrieved the club without concern or apology.
“I’m actually going to try and obviously not get as hot when I play,” Woods said. “But then again, when I’m not as hot, I’m not going to be as exuberant, either. I can’t play one without the other, and so I made a conscious decision to try and tone down my negative outbursts. And consequently, I’m sure my positive outbursts will be calmed down, as well.”
Woods walked into his press conference with a comfortable smile and hugged Ronald Townsend, the first black member at Augusta National.
But he was not comfortable at the start.
He swallowed hard to steady his voice and meant to open his comments by noting he had played his practice round with Fred Couples. But instead he said “Craig” – confusing Couples with Craig Heatley, the Masters media chairman running the press conference.
And as he has done in statements on his Web site, a public apology at PGA Tour headquarters Feb. 19 and a pair of five-minute TV interviews two weeks ago, Woods owned up to his mistakes.
Not everyone was satisfied.
Even as he spoke, adult film star Josyln James – one of more than a dozen women who claims to have had affairs with Woods – watched with attorney Gloria Allred and a room full of reporters and TV cameras in New York.
Last month, James released what she said was a series of tawdry text messages from Woods that spelled out their trysts.
“I think he’s still a big, fat liar,” James said. She has asked for an apology from Woods, saying he was not truthful during their three-year relationship.
How could Woods, renowned for discipline and control, have allowed himself to leave so much evidence that can find its way into the tabloids and on the Internet?
It was one of several times Woods did not offer a direct answer.
“I don’t know,” he said. “All I know is I acted just terribly, poorly, made just incredibly bad decisions, and decisions that have hurt so many people close to me. That’s enough.”