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Upbeat Tiger Draws Universal Attention

This story was written by National Columnist Mike Freeman
The gallery started to thicken for Tiger Woods well before his 1:42 tee time. At noon, it was three to four rows deep. By 1 p.m., there were twice as many people. A few minutes before, it was 10 rows thick. The scene smelled like a mix of sweat, cigars and beer.

Kids were propped on their father's shoulders (until security asked the dads to put them down). Masters security officials wormed in and out of the mass of people looking at badges and staring at faces like they were looking for someone specifically. (Rachel Uchitel, is that you?).

Then, around 1:35, Woods started to approach the first hole. The sea of people titled at once in the same direction to get a good look. That's when the cheers erupted. Yes, they erupted.

"On the tee, Tiger Woods."

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And, with that simple statement after such a complex series of skirt chasing events, Woods was back.

The loss of ferocity and erosion of skill that was supposed to occur due to Woods' bimbo eruptions never happened. His full charm offensive -- still in hyper mode, still somewhat phony -- was active. He smiled more. He engaged the gallery possibly more than ever in his career. There wasn't a single hole where he cursed. Those were the ways he looked different.

Yet, in many aspects, this was the same old Woods. As somewhat of a circus developed during the day ( chronicled each of Woods' holes) with airplanes towing banners that used "bootyism" instead of Buddhism and famous athletes, actors and others following his every move, the one thing that remained a constant was Woods being in contention for a Masters title. Just like always. Just like old times. The fact Woods received such strong support from the crowd says more about us than Woods. He was being cheered for nearly ruining his marriage, career, and image and the cheers came despite new and disturbing tabloid accusations. He was cheered for acting like a toad.

On the course, it was a remarkable event to witness. Woods' score of 4-under-par 68 included two eagles and was his lowest first round ever at the Masters. It left him tied for seventh despite what had to be immense pressure. The world always watches Woods but this time it seemed like the universe was watching. Maybe the pressure of knowing he was no longer going to get caught with his hand in the cocktail waitresses cookie jar helped him concentrate.

"Why play if you don't think you're going to win?" Woods said. "If I don't think I can win, I won't enter the event."

The scene here, at least for a Masters, was at times chaotic. Literally, as Woods approached the first tee, a single engine plane flew overhead towing a sign that read: "Tiger, did you mean Bootyism?" Another towed sign read: "Sex addict? Yeah right. Sure. Me too."

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The Bootyism plane seemed to know where Woods was at all times. It followed him as close as was allowed. One Woods fan yelled that the plane should be shot down. Overall, the gallery was happy for Woods. At every hole, he received applause and each time, he tipped his cap or smiled.

Not every fan was cheering Woods. A woman said loudly she wished Woods would get struck by lightning.

Earlier in the day, as Woods walked out of the clubhouse, one person watching him was the former wife of Governor Mark Sanford, Jenny Sanford, who divorced the Appalachian Trail walker after she learned of his affair. It was an interesting contrast.

Later, Woods' mother, Kultida, followed Woods on every hole as she walked with Nike co-founder Phil Knight. At times, they walked arm in arm. Former NFL players Cris Carter and Warren Moon were also present among the gallery.

Woods was steady and smiling for most of the day and his energy seemed to increase as time went on. His first fist pump came after he birdied the ninth. Just about then a steady drizzle started to fall.

His only fit of anger came on the 14th. His second shot went hard left and landed a few inches inside the ropes. "Oh, God!" Woods yelled. Woods tossed his club and turned away unable to watch his ball in flight. He bogeyed that hole but eagled 15.

By the afternoon, the crowds were even more enthusiastic as the beers took hold and Woods started to click. Members of the gallery started to lean over the ropes and reach for Woods' caddy, Steve Williams, to shake his hand. Several times Williams did.

At the end, as Woods walked down the 18th hole, he looked like a confident man, not the beat down apologist at his various news conferences. His swing was solid and his energy was again nuclear. He was back.

Boy, was that quick.