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Apr 5, 2010 10:27 AM by Letitia Walker

Tiger Returns to the Game

AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) - Tiger Woods walked onto the first tee Monday

to awkward silence from about 500 fans who gradually warmed up to

him as he began a practice round at the Masters with Fred Couples.

"Welcome back, Tiger," came the occasional shout from the

gallery.

Woods turned to acknowledge the fans with a nod and a smile -

something he rarely did before a sex scandal made him the source of

so much ridicule.

It was his first time playing before a gallery since Nov. 15 at

the Australian Masters and its sellout crowd in Melbourne, when

Woods came from behind on the final day to win for the 82nd time in

his career.

Woods teed off about 8 a.m., right as the gates to Augusta

National opened. The crowd increased with every hole, and it

included some familiar faces - Masters chairman Billy Payne was

among those watching.

A helicopter circled the course without flying overhead.

Woods hooked his opening tee shot toward the ninth fairway and

hit another. He walked briskly, chatting with Couples as fans

lining the fairways took pictures of every step. Also getting

plenty of attention was his swing coach Hank Haney, who posed for a

half-dozen pictures behind the third tee.

Haney declined to talk about Woods or his game.

"Everyone can see for themselves how he's playing," Haney

said.

Woods played the back nine on Sunday afternoon with Mark O'Meara

when the course was closed.

"This is the place where you belong," O'Meara said he told

Woods as they walked down the 10th fairway. "This is what you love

to do."

The real test was to follow his practice round Monday - his

first press conference since the public learned of his sordid

extramarital affairs, which continue to be a sensation on the

Internet and in tabloids.

His press conference is getting so much attention that Augusta

National has asked media outlets for only one reporter to make sure

every organization has a chance to fill the 207 seats in the press

center.

Ever since he ran over a fire hydrant and into a tree in the

early hours of Nov. 27 - that infamous car accident that sparked

incredible revelations of rampant affairs - Woods has kept public

comments to a minimum.

He issued two statements on his Web site about his infidelity.

He spoke for 13½ minutes to a small group of family and friends on

Feb. 19 at PGA Tour headquarters. He announced he was returning to

golf. And he gave a pair of five-minute interviews to TV networks.

This press conference, however, comes with no restrictions.

He won't be reading a script into a camera. He is facing a room

full of reporters, who are not limited by time.

It was Augusta National that requested Woods speak on a Monday

afternoon to avoid stealing the show from so many other Masters

contenders who are to have press conferences on Tuesday.

A Masters official made it clear that Woods isn't running this

show, however long it lasts.

"There's always going to be questions," O'Meara said. "But

he's made a statement about what he's done. He's admitted his

guilt, and now it's time for him to make things right. He'll figure

it out. He's pretty tough."

Woods has run into a few players during the last month of

practice at home in Florida. Brian Gay was among those who saw him

at Augusta National last week when Woods was preparing for the

Masters, although Gay didn't approach him.

Woods dipped his toes in the water Sunday afternoon, a lazy day

of practice when only club members, employees and media are allowed

inside the gates, and only players and their caddies are allowed on

the course.

With stubble trying to form a goatee, Woods strolled onto the

new practice range at Augusta National, passing two reporters and

offering a playful jab as he paused to shake hands. He chatted with

Paul Casey while waiting for caddie Steve Williams to bring his

bag, which has only the "TW" Nike logo - the first time playing

without a corporate logo. He spoke on the putting green with Jim

Furyk and his father.

Casey wanted to keep the conversation private, saying only that

it was good to see Woods on the golf course again.

"It's where I'm used to seeing him," Casey said, choosing to

keep their conversation private. "All of a sudden he appeared

behind me. He was all business as usual - hit 10 balls and go

play."

Most of the players have not seen him since he won the

Australian Masters on Nov. 15, or when he played in Shanghai the

week before. Furyk had not seen him since they celebrated a

Presidents Cup victory on Oct. 11.

"He's probably here a little earlier than normal," Furyk said.

"I've never seen him here on a Sunday. Generally, it's nice to

have him back and I can't wait until he's out here and I don't have

to answer any more questions about him."

There will be awkward times for many. Woods was friendly with

plenty of players, but not terribly close with any of his peers. He

has beaten them routinely over the years while piling up 82

victories worldwide and 14 majors.

Now, it's time to get introduced to a Woods no one knew.

He has been linked to more than a dozen women, although he has

confessed to cheating only on his wife. "I have made you question

who I am and how I could have done the things I did," Woods said

in his 13½-minute statement at Sawgrass on Feb. 19.

As for his golf? Stay tuned.

"He hit the ball pretty good today," O'Meara said. "He's been

practicing the last three or four weeks. He's good to go. It's

going to be a different thing for him. But if anyone can handle it,

he can."

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