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Woods set for afternoon start

Photo by Scott Chancey

Photo by Scott Chancey

AUGUSTA -- Another day at Augusta National brought Tiger Woods closer to the very reason he came to the Masters.

He turned his head from side to side so he could make eye contact with fans as he walked off the green. He looked more at ease as he tried to make good on his pledge to be a better person.

But as much as Woods talks about repairing his image from a sex scandal, he ultimately will be judged by the number on his scorecard.

"Why do you think he's here?" said Jack Nicklaus, whose 18 majors remains the benchmark Woods is chasing. "I don't think he's here for his health or anything. He's here to play golf. That's what he is. He's a very good golfer. It's the first major of the year. He's taking large steps to get his life back in order, and he wants to play golf.

"He's excited about wanting to play, and I think that's great for him. And I think that's great for the game."

Each day brings Woods closer to Thursday, and the start of a Masters where he commands more attention than usual.

Even a routine practice round with old friend Mark O'Meara turned surreal when Woods crouched on the 10th green and peered into his cell phone. It looked ominous. Only three weeks ago, a porn star who claims to have had a three-year affair with Woods released on her Web site what she said were salacious text messages from Woods.

Turns out he was using it to videotape O'Meara.

"He was helping me with my putting," he said. "I had a loop in my putting stroke. He wanted to film my putting stroke."

The audience will get even larger Thursday, courtesy of a starting time at 1:42 p.m. Woods will be in the penultimate group for the second straight year, joined by K.J. Choi and Matt Kuchar. It fits perfectly into ESPN's live television coverage that starts at 4 p.m.

Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, who have 10 green jackets between them, were surprised when Woods chose not to play before the Masters. No one goes to Augusta National without knowing what to expect.

Along with rust from not having struck a meaningful shot since winning the Australian Masters on Nov. 15, Woods has accumulated plenty of emotional baggage from the scandal.

"It's a very stressful course to play when you're in a major championship," British Open champion Stewart Cink said. "It's a really difficult test, and it comes at you with every shot. If your game is up to it, and your mentality is up to it, then you can succeed and you can play well and have some confidence.

"But if you are wavering in any way, the course just identifies that and it just spits you out."

Woods has never come to Augusta National with so many questions about his game. He twice sat out for nine weeks before the U.S. Open, missing the cut in 2006 after his father died, winning in 2008 at Torrey Pines after knee surgery.

Winged Foot is not one of his favorites. Torrey Pines is like his own playground. Augusta National is somewhere in between. Despite being a four-time champion, Woods has won only once in seven years as the course has been revamped.

"I don't think anybody expected him to play well in the 2008 U.S. Open," Phil Mickelson said. "I don't think anybody out here will question his ability to perform at the highest level, even though he has not competed in however many months. So I think from a player's point of view, we expect to see the same player that we have always seen."

Woods apologized to players on Monday for having to answer so many questions about him while he was in seclusion. His hope was that they would be left alone, but it wasn't going to happen this week.

Just about everyone who sat before the media fielded questions about Woods, mostly about how he would play. Just like the previous three months, when Woods' silence created a void that was filled by rumor and innuendo, no one had any answers.

The players are just like everyone else, curious about Thursday and the rest of the week.

"We've spent 15 years underestimating what he can do," Geoff Ogilvy said. "I have 100 percent confidence in his ability to win the tournament. I'm not saying he's going to, but I think he can."

Steve Stricker will have to look over his shoulder to find out. He's playing in the group ahead of Woods the opening two rounds.

"His personal life is totally different from his golfing ability, although looking back, you wonder how he competed at such a high level with all of this stuff going on," Stricker said. "It's actually scary to think if he gets his mind a little bit freer and uncluttered that it could be better. That's what is going to be interesting to watch, as a fan and as a player."

Even so, few other golf courses require so much precision on every shot, especially when it's as hot and dry as it has been all week.

And this break is more emotional than physical.

After winning in Australia, Woods went 15 weeks before getting back into a practice routine. He endured a humiliating December after his extramarital affairs were exposed, and he spent most of January and February in therapy.

He skipped a tune up at Bay Hill, saying he wasn't ready.

"You have to remember that Tiger ... has a good ability to bring his game from the practice round to the golf course," three-time major winner Padraig Harrington said. "He would have liked to have played a little bit, but he's still capable."

Capable of making the cut? Contending? Winning?

"No matter how he looks or what he comes up and says, you don't know fully how this is affecting him inside and how it's affecting his golf," Harrington said. "People react differently. I would not be surprised at all if he was contending, and I would not be surprised if he played better golf than ever.

"But there's obviously a doubt to that, and we will only be able to find that out on Sunday evening."

The scouting report is not promising.

Jim Furyk, who played the final five holes with Woods during practice on Monday, said the four-time Masters champion was hitting some loose shots. Woods rarely was satisfied with his tee shots on Tuesday, hitting two balls on several holes.

Nicklaus always geared his game for the majors. Woods followed that script, until it took a shocking turn.

"He is probably not as sharp as he will be a month from now," Nicklaus said. "But he's here. And him not sharp is still pretty good."