The Front Row with JIM LITKE April 9, 2010
AUGUSTA, Ga. - If you wanted to see him fail, a golf course was probably the last place to look.
Tiger Woods might have lost his moral compass. But his swing hasn't gone anywhere.
He striped what might have been the most pressure-packed shot of his career off the first tee, then hit his approach shot 12 feet left of the hole - this as a plane circled lazily overhead towing a banner that read: "Tiger: Did you mean Bootyism?"
Woods' birdie try at the first hole narrowly slid past the cup and spun away. Four other times his birdie tries hit the lip and spun out. He let a half-dozen similarly good birdie opportunities on the back nine get away - this time with a plane towing a different banner: "Sex Addict? Yeah. Right. Sure. Me, Too!"
For all that, Woods still shot 68, his lowest opening round ever at a tournament he's won four times. If nothing else, no matter how the rest of his time here goes, this performance should put to rest any notion that how Woods plays golf has anything to do with how he behaved.
And remember: If only half the stories of his extramarital flings are true, Woods already won a dozen times around the world knowing full well his secret could blow up at any moment. When he said this time that he feels more comfortable on a golf course than just about anywhere else, it never rang more true.
"I normally do feel pretty good on the golf course. Sometimes," Woods said, "it may be a little difficult at home when helicopters are flying overhead, taking pictures. But normally, I do feel pretty good."
He was cheered on the range, on the practice putting green alongside the first tee and everywhere else he stepped. The closest thing to derision were muttered conversations along a few fairways, where clusters of friends either dared one another to yell something nasty, or wondered whether anybody else might. No one did.
That certainly had something to do with all the extra security crisscrossing the grounds. Even when Woods sneaked over to a portable toilet on the 11th hole, he was trailed by two guards. He was also escorted all the way around by Team Tiger, which consisted of a dozen people at various times, but always included his mother, Tida, swing coach Hank Haney, Nike boss Phil Knight, agent Mark Steinberg and a few staff members from the Tiger Woods Foundation.
The cheers were tentative at first, with fans looking at one another as if all of them were searching for the right tone. But soon enough, the applause gathered steam in direct proportion to how Woods was playing.
When he walked onto the 12th tee, he politely tipped the bill of his cap, then realized those in the gallery just ahead of him had popped up out of their seats. Woods took his cap off to the still-standing ovation, then moments later, hit his tee shot at the par-3 hole just 6 feet below the pin and responded to the full-throated roar by taking his cap off again. Half-embarrassed, he followed that with an awkward smile.
"I said thank you all the way," Woods said. "I was saying thank you all day."
That wasn't the only thing he said, of course. For all the talk about a new, more fan-friendly Tiger, flashes of the old one resurfaced as he climbed the leaderboard. He pumped his first with every birdie try that fell and nearly dropped to his knees several times when they didn't.
At the 14th, after a letter-perfect drive down the right side of the fairway, Woods pulled his approach left and long of the green, dropped the club and let out what sounded like the beginning of a howl: "God ..." But he caught himself mid-scream, then just stopped, stared into the distance and composed himself for the next shot. One of his three bogeys followed anyway.
Yet those disappointments were muted compared to the five months of wall-to-wall ridicule that preceded them. As a reminder, he was ripped only Wednesday by Augusta National chairman Billy Payne, who publicly called out Woods for being a less-than-suitable role model for kids.
"We did have a conversation, yes we did," was all Woods said about it. "I was disappointed in myself, too."
Payne's admonition, however, was mild compared to the blistering that Woods caught for a new Nike commercial that aired a day earlier, in which he stares into the camera as his late father asks, "What were you thinking?" The ad has been parodied dozens of times already, most notably with the voice-over replaced by a message Woods was said to have left for one of his mistresses.
"I think that's what my dad would say," Woods said late Thursday, back on the defensive for one of the few times all day.
"It's amazing how my dad can speak to me from different ways, even when he's long gone. He's still helping me. Any son who's lost a father that meant so much in his life, I think they would understand the spot."
But the simple fact that Woods and his backers at Nike have decided to push back tells you two things. First, they're as determined to cash in on his misfortune as everybody else; and two, whatever things Woods needed to work on in rehab, his confidence was not one of them.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org