Tiger Woods will today play his first competitive round in front of "normal golf fans" for more than five months after announcing he is fully prepared to deal with being barracked. Although the Augusta-type welcome he received in the Charlotte pro-am yesterday must make him confident of a comfortable ride.
The three policemen who joined his regular security guards for his early-morning tee-off alongside two local catering executives were not truly needed. The crowds were cordial and respectful and their warmth was reciprocated. Just as he did at the Masters, Woods smiled, tipped his hat and regularly said "thank you" to all their good wishes. He even stopped to sign a ball or two. Here he was again; the gleaming new Tiger.
Of course, at Augusta the facade had shattered a little by the time Sunday evening came around and it was evident that his first comeback event after the sex scandal would not end in some sort of redemptive victory. He was surly to a TV interviewer and said fourth was definitely not what he had expected. Yesterday Woods revealed how the old powers of hindsight had eventually won him over.
"Given time to reflect on it, it was an incredible week," he said. "It went as well as it possibly could have. After not playing for that long and finishing fourth, that's pretty reasonable."
The response from the Georgian galleries was as generous as could be expected, too; particularly considering how badly America had supposedly taken the revelations of the multiple affairs. But that was Augusta, ultra-controlled Augusta. Surely it will be different at an event like the Quail Hollow Championship, where the man in the street can freely buy tickets and head straight to the concession stands? They have sold out 35,000 tickets a day and that's a lot of wisecracks to keep a lid on.
"Whether they do [heckle] or not, it's happened before, and it happened before any of this ever happened," replied Woods. "I've dealt with that before. But over the years the fans here have been great. There's no reason why that shouldn't continue." Indeed, there are a few reasons why this should continue. For the repercussions for any would-be Tiger taunters have been set out.
On Tuesday, Peter Dawson, the Royal & Ancient chief executive, announced that fans would only be ejected if they refused to stop their abuse. Second chances may be de rigueur in Fife, but in North Carolina the golfing authorities are rather less tolerant. "If something occurs we're going to deal with it swiftly," declared the tournament director, Kym Hougham. "We're not going to be scared to remove someone from the property."
There has been an unashamed effort to make this as comfortable as possible for Woods. Any stations or publications not considered as "legitimate golfing news outlets" have been rejected. Initially, even The Independent's request was turned down. But still, the media numbers in Charlotte rival those of certain majors. And the playing field has a "big four" feel, too.
Eleven of the world's top 16 are in town, which obviously makes Woods' task that bit more difficult. He does like the place, though. The 2007 winner has played the event four times and his worst performance is 11th. Yet he did refer to his form yesterday as "scratchy". "I hit some bad tee-shots, some bad iron shots, bad chips, bad putts, but somehow I still shot under par," he said. Woods knows he must radically improve to return to his position of predominance over the forthcoming months. The eyes of an uninitiated world are upon him and if a victory does not arrive very soon, all the crass theorising is bound to intensify.
For now he must deal with the continued fallout from the scandal. The two events he plays these next two weeks prove that he is trying to return his schedule to normal (although he did say that "personal things" mean his "schedule is up in the air"). But as far as injecting what the Americans like to call "normalcy" into his existence? Forget it.
"There's paparazzi everywhere, at home, helicopters here and there, people driving by, paparazzi camping out in front of the gates," he lamented. "That hasn't changed." And when he does feel brave enough to venture out, as he did last week, he gets lampooned. "Yeah, a couple of the band members of Nickelback are friends of mine," he said. "I had a great time. And unfortunately I got criticised for seeing my friends."
Woods evidently feels he cannot win at the moment, but knows that he must win. The problem is there's a certain rival in attendance this week who is stealing what little good publicity there is in golf at the moment. Phil Mickelson made America cry three weeks ago when he won the Masters and dedicated it to his cancer-fighting wife. This man is the man to beat. On so many levels.