World No 1 marvels at warmth of Masters welcome

American says he was more nervous about yesterday's public practice than facing press
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The Independent Online

Tiger Woods played golf in front of the paying public and answered the questions of the baying media here yesterday. And so a new sporting life began. It was his first day in the competitive arena in five months and went as well as he could have hoped. Yes, the world No 1 is back. But he looks nothing like the world No 1 we once knew.

Of course, the brunt of the focus would concentrate on the press conference, the first Woods has given since the sex scandal broke last November. The media were desperate for their time and at last Woods obliged. This was no televised statement, no quick-fire five minutes. There were no restrictions on questions and he sat there for 35 minutes being fired at. Perhaps he wasn't as open as certain critics would have liked. But he was "open" and ducked very little.

What do we know about Woods that we didn't know before? Well, the FBI has been in touch regarding an investigation into a doctor administering performance-enhancing drugs to professional athletes. Cue "Tiger in drugs link" headlines. Woods admitted being seen by Dr Anthony Galea in his home, yet explained how he was treated with a blood-spinning procedure to aid his recovery from knee reconstruction. His explanation sounded plausible enough, particularly when he revealed that he played most of the last year with a torn Achilles. It was the one thing we didn't know about Woods which put his sporting prowess in a different light.

Otherwise his responses were on a personal level, although he did refuse to confirm that the 45 days he spent in rehab were for sex addiction. That was too personal for Woods. What wasn't was the first birthday of his son, Charlie. "I missed it [when he went into treatment just after Christmas]," he said. "And that hurts. That hurts a lot. I've vowed never to miss another one. I can't go back to where I was."

Where Woods happened to be was in the middle of the biggest controversy ever to hit golf. When he crashed his car into a fire hydrant at the end of his driveway on 27 November his life began to unravel. His wife smashed out his windows with golf clubs, he was rushed to hospital, he declined to be interviewed by police. Why? "I had a busted-up lip and a pretty sore neck, and that was it," replied Woods in relation to the injuries the police report failed to detail. "I did everything to the letter of the law," he said, when asked why he didn't talk to police. There was no implication of his wife's role in the bizarre scenario which will remain a mystery. Woods was desperate to take the blame, himself. "I lied to, deceived a lot of people," he told the packed room. "I fooled myself as well. The full magnitude of it, it's pretty brutal."

Woods claimed to "totally understand" why some of his sponsors dropped him just as he "totally understands" the ridicule. The solution, he said, was to carry on his treatment as well as the Buddhist meditating on which he has re-embarked. "It's not how many major championships you win, it's how you live your life," he said, outlining the fresh priorities. "I need to be a better man going forward than I've been before. If I win major championships along the way, so be it, but I want to help people along the way."

Naturally, there will be plenty who remain unconvinced of his sincerity and will hold up his participation here as evidence of a Machiavellian reintroduction to the world of big bucks and big kudos. "When I gave that speech in February I had no intentions of playing golf in the near future at all," he said. "But then I started hitting balls and started getting the itch to play again. And then Hank [Haney, his coach] came down and we started working again. It felt like old times. That's when I made the decision to play again."

And here he is. Interestingly, Woods believed he had crossed his Rubicon in his practice round and not the press conference. "As far as getting out there, I was definitely more nervous," he said. "That first tee I didn't know what to expect, I really didn't. I've never been in that position before. To be out there in front of people where I have done some things that are just horrible and for the fans to really want to see me play golf again – that felt great. For them to cheer me after what has transpired in my life is incredible."

The reception he received as he walked up to the final green was the loudest of the day. Fred Couples, his playing partner, called it a "standing ovation" and, even allowing for the fact Augusta doesn't have grandstands to stand up in, it was hard to quibble.

The atmosphere was respectful when the pair teed off at 8.05am but over the ensuing four hours the volume increased. That had something to do with the growing galleries as the attendance increased towards the 50,000 mark; but more to do with the reaction of Woods, himself. In the past he would treat cheers like he would autograph hunters – with total ambivalence. Here he tipped his hat and from the walk from the ninth to the 10th tee did the old ice hockey routine of high-fiving as he slid by. The Iceman had never seemed so warm.

"The encouragement I received just blew me away," he said "I know the people here are extremely respectful, but today was something that really touched my heart. I'm going to try to be more respectful to the game and acknowledge the fans like I did today. I haven't done that in the past few years and that was wrong of me."

Woods appreciates his new attitude will come at a price. "I've made a conscious decision to try to tone down my negative outbursts," he said, referring to the club-throwing and swearing. "But consequently I'm sure my positive outbursts will be calmed down as well."

From the playing perspective it did not go well. Woods joined the hookers, yanking too many drives into the trees. Even Couples expressed a little doubt whether his friend could win carrying so much match rust.

But after just one day, Woods has already shaken so much off his back and everyone knows how adept he has been at turning the impossible into the implausible and then into the viable. The old Tiger Woods could do it, but can the new Tiger Woods? At least the main question now revolves around his sport. "What are your expectations this week?" he was asked. "Nothing's changed," he replied. "Going to go out there and try to win this thing."

Hunted Tiger: How the Woods drama unfolded

Late-night car crash in Florida, 27 November 2009

Tiger Woods is taken to hospital after crashing his car into a fire hydrant while leaving his home at 2.25am. His wife, Elin, tells police she used a golf club to smash the back window of the vehicle before helping him out of the car. The golfer delays answering police questions.

Woods announces break from golf, 30 Nov

The golfer announces he will not play again in 2009.

Revelations of affairs begin, 1 December

A Los Angeles cocktail waitress tells of a 31-month affair with Woods. Thirteen other women are linked to the golfer over the next week and a half.

Tiger tackles his transgressions, 2 Dec

Woods says: "I have let my family down."

Parnevik leads the criticism, 3 Dec

Swedish golfer Jesper Parnevik, who introduced Woods to Elin, says he had thought he "was a better guy".

More family woe at home, 8 Dec

Woods' mother-in-law is taken to hospital with stomach pains after an emergency call from the golfer's home.

Walks away from sport 'indefinitely', 11 Dec

Woods admits infidelity and says he will take an indefinite break from golf.

Sponsors start to desert him, 14 Dec

Accenture ends sponsorship, saying Woods is "no longer the right representative". AT&T and Gatorade follow suit.

Tiger enters rehab for his problems, 30 Dec

Woods checks into a sex addiction clinic in Mississippi.

Controversially breaks his silence, 19 February 2010

He apologises on TV and to a small group of friends in controlled environment. His timing is criticised – it's the Friday of the Arizona Match Play Championship.

He'll be back – at Augusta, 16 March

It is announced that Woods will play at the Masters.

Greg Heffer