Woods learns how to keep his cool

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Strange what a single day can do, even just one golf shot. If you happen to be Tiger Woods, it seems, it can even make life manageable again.

Not always a stroll through the pines and azaleas, you understand, not always an experience of sweet fulfilment. Indeed, there were moments of intense frustration on the second day of his attempt to re-make himself in the eyes of the world.

Two short putts escaped him on the 16th and 17th holes. Sometimes he strayed from the fairway. But each time a shadow came, he simply walked through it.

After 36 holes, he was six-under-par and lurking behind the leaders with all the stalking danger that long ago made him arguably the most formidable golfer the world has ever seen. He is supposed to be wounded here but the health of his game still blazes with the force of a Georgian sunrise.

On the 17th fairway he faced potential disaster after hitting a tree off the tee. Instead, he fashioned a gloriously lofted shot that cleared the obstructing pines and gave him a birdie chance. He did make one long birdie putt, a 25-footer on the 13th, and when that went in we seemed a step closer to the stunning possibility that not only would Woods refuse to unravel here, but might just win his 15th major title.

What was not in any doubt yesterday was the extent of the relief the Tiger felt when his first shot of this Masters at a high noon on Thursday went straight down the fairway rather than hooking into the trees.

That particular disaster came yesterday, but the difference was that it was no longer a plunge into a large black abyss. It was just one of those things that can go wrong without much of the world announcing you're doomed.

If Woods had hooked his first shot after a five-month absence, if he had revealed any hint at all that he was not returning to the office after a lengthy leave but the greatest public ordeal of his life, there could have been little doubt that the damage had every chance of being progressive.

"You know," said one golf insider yesterday, "I think a lot of America would have decided that the Tiger story might just be over if he had messed up on that first tee. It would have been a bit like the Witches of Salem trial. 'Look, it is a sign from above....Tiger's guilty'."

When it happened on a bright, chilly morning on the second day of the rest of his life, Woods merely shrugged. So did the rest of us.

His recovery shot was brilliant and par was rescued. He birdied the par-five second after threatening an eagle, achieved par after another miscued tee shot at the third and then he went horribly wrong at the fourth, giving back a shot.

It meant that in the course of a few holes Woods had walked between the possibility of shooting to the top of the leaderboard or tumbling down it. However, the real significance was that he did it with a smile that, for the time being at least, didn't seem forced.

Better still, he handed a young fan one of his gloves after that less than perfect drive off the third tee. Not so long ago the boy might have received something less welcome, a flying club. Plainly this was a day when Woods grasped that he had re-found the place where the most he could fear was a difficult lie. Nothing, certainly, seemed quite so impossible any more.

After his brilliant first day 68, which left him just two shots off the lead seized by the veteran and former champion Tom Watson, it was plain that he felt his great achievement was to have the feeling that he had just pulled up his chair in an old and familiar office, though perhaps not quite putting out the family pictures on the desk.

Last night he said that he was pleased to have played better than on the first day and that his 70 merely reflected more difficult conditions. "I haven't been able to play so much but it has meant I have had to focus on my practice more than ever before. Yes, I'm pleased with the results."

After 144 days away, the old routine was picked up with impressive speed and an almost completely successful attempt to curb some of the excessive reaction to disappointment which had been an ever increasing source of criticism, and resentment, before the stories of his serial philandering suddenly gushed forth.

Woods was certainly happy to proceed in an even-par rhythm after his second-hole birdie and the bogey that came two holes later. It was the same on the second day as it had been on the first. Woods was making not a blitzkrieg but a methodical walk away from a searing crisis.

It many ways, though, it had a distinction unique even in one of the most extraordinary careers golf has ever seen. On the first day it had a rhythmic, soothing quality, and even as he scored two eagles and reminded us that he was still capable of shots of absolute sorcery, the priority seemed to be safety at all costs.

This was something new in the recent course of the Tiger's life and that impression was only underlined yesterday as he seemed to flirt with danger, than hang on to respectability as he went around Amen Corner, twice saving par when it appeared to be seriously threatened.

Such a policy might not do in the development of any reputation as the greatest, most exciting player in the history of golf. But in any list of the Tiger's immediate needs, it was probably in the right place. On and off the course, safety first for a little while at least has a compulsion all of its own.