Photo by David J. Phillip
AUGUSTA -- Wearing golf hats with Tiger Woods' logo, brothers Sullins and James Becton could barely contain their excitement at seeing their favorite player again.
Their grandfather, Dr. James Becton, was a little more conflicted.
Sure, he was happy to see the world's No. 1 golfer back doing what he does best at the Masters. But Becton's grandsons are also 9 and 12, and he agrees with Augusta National chairman Billy Payne, who said Woods failed to live up to his responsibilities as a role model.
"That was pretty much my opinion, too," the doctor said Thursday morning. "But we'll wish him well today."
This was Woods' first competitive round since the November SUV accident that touched off a tawdry sex scandal and made him a tabloid fixture and the butt of late-night jokes. No one -- not even Woods -- knew quite how fans would respond. Would they cheer him the way they used to? Follow his every move? Or would their response be muted? The occasional, oh-so-polite golf clap?
Or would they heckle him, a scenario that would have been unthinkable six months ago?
By the time he reached the first green, he had his answer: They were glad to see him.
Fans applauded Woods as he made the walk from the practice range to the first tee, and greeted him warmly at the tee. "Make us proud!" one yelled.
It was much the same reaction on every other hole. Galleries that were one or two deep 20 minutes earlier swelled to mob scenes when Woods and his group arrived. No sooner did he finish one hole than a sea of people was on the move, eager to get in position on the next one.
They applauded his good shots, groaned at the bad ones and shouted encouraging cheers.
"It was unbelievable," Woods said. "I mean, all day. I haven't heard them cheer this loud in all my years here."
Oh, there probably was a time or two in 1997, 2001, 2002 and 2005 he heard louder cries. But fans definitely seemed willing to overlook Woods' personal failings and appreciate his professional brilliance. Fans seated behind the 12th tee even gave him a standing ovation as he and playing partner Matt Kuchar approached the hole.
"I want to see him golf," Denny Bleh said after Woods made his way through Amen Corner. "That's the reason everybody's here."
Added Freddie Holden, "He's said he's sorry enough. Enough. Enough."
There were even a few jabs.
While he was on No. 1 green a plane flew over the course towing a banner that said, "Tiger Did You Mean Bootyism?" -- an irreverent play on Buddhism, the religion he says he fell away from amid all of his problems. A few holes later, another banner -- "Sex Addict? Yeah. Right. Sure. Me Too!" -- buzzed above Augusta National.
There was even a hard jab.
"He doesn't have the right character and integrity to represent golf," Larry Isenhour said. "He's just a bad representation of golf."
Woods said he didn't see the planes, but he did see the fans. Heard them, too.
Criticized for being cold and detached in the past, Woods tried to make frequent eye contact with the gallery and acknowledged the cheers by waving or touching the brim of his cap.
After that standing ovation on 12, he actually took his cap off and nodded to the crowd. When fans around the No. 6 green greeted him with a chant of "Ti-ger! Ti-ger!" he broke into a grin.
"I think the way he's reacting with the crowd is amazing," Jim Moehring said after watching Woods in Amen Corner. "He seems to be more relaxed."
Woods even threw in a couple of fist pumps, despite his earlier warning that he would try to rein in his exuberance.
"It felt really good just to get out there and get into the rhythm of the round," he said. "Just kind of go about my business."
And despite all the allegations, revelations and sordid details of the last five months, it really was business as usual on the course.
"I was expecting that he would be welcomed back," Holden said. "It's all about golf."