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Tiger Woods returns to friendly reception as Masters week begins at Augusta

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 6, 2010; A01

AUGUSTA, GA. -- Monday might have been like any other pitch-perfect April day at Augusta National Golf Club. Tiger Woods arrived at the practice tee early and played a round in preparation for this week's Masters. He drew the largest galleries of anyone on the course, then spoke with reporters about golf and life. The sky was blue, the azaleas appeared ready to bloom. All seemed normal.

The difference on this Monday: Woods had not appeared in public since an unseemly sex scandal enveloped his life and sent him on a self-imposed hiatus of nearly five months. He is making the Masters, golf's first major championship of the year, his season debut, and the day of his initial public practice round also included his first question-and-answer session with a group of reporters. Woods, who once prided himself on self-control and focus, faced several elements Monday well beyond his purview.

"I was definitely more nervous," he said. "That first tee, I didn't know what to expect; I really didn't. It's one of those things where I've never been in this position before."

With his once once-impeccable reputation damaged -- perhaps irreparably -- by what he called "incredibly poor decisions," Monday provided the opportunity for a baby step in Woods's public rehabilitation. He put aside his typical pre-tournament blinders and occasionally gruff demeanor and engaged the crowd at several turns. He smiled. He waved. He joked. When he finished, he took two golf balls and putted them toward a young boy at the side of the 18th green.

"Today was a little bit different," he said.

It was different, too, because of what came after that practice round. In a 34-minute session in front of more than 200 reporters who took every chair in an interview room, Woods alternately flogged himself ("I've done some things that are just horrible"), painted himself as a changed man whose obsession with his profession is now diminished ("It's not about the championships; it's about how you live your life"), yet still recited the same, years-old answer about his goals for the week ("Nothing's changed; going to go out there and try to win this thing").

During an 18-hole round that began just after 8 a.m. with former Masters champion Fred Couples and concluded with former U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk -- who joined the group for the last five holes -- Woods was received cordially, if not enthusiastically, fitting for any old Monday at Augusta National, with the first round of the Masters still three days away. Security guards walked with the group, and there was nothing approaching an ugly incident.

Fans clapped for Woods's good shots, yelled encouragement -- "You're still the man, Tiger!" was followed by "Welcome back, Tiger!" -- and filled an area around the 11th green and 12th tee as if it were Sunday's final round.

"I expected it to be positive," Furyk said. "It was probably even better."

In some ways, though, the news conference was a more important element of the day. Since his single-car accident in the early hours of Nov. 27 jarred loose a torrent of information about his apparently serial infidelity, Woods had spoken publicly twice -- once in February, when he addressed an international television audience but did not take questions, and again in March, when he granted a pair of five-minute television interviews. Because of Monday's format -- the content of questions wasn't limited in any way -- Woods addressed topics he hadn't since the accident.

Among them: His relationship with Anthony Galea, a Canadian sports medicine specialist who is under federal investigation for providing performance-enhancing drugs, including human growth hormone, to professional athletes. Woods confirmed that Galea came to his Orlando-area home to assist with Woods's recovery from reconstructive knee surgery in 2008 and subsequently to help him through a previously undisclosed Achilles' tendon tear in early 2009.

Woods said he sought out Galea because of his reputation for working with athletes, and said Galea oversaw a procedure called platelet rich plasma therapy (PRP), designed to help injuries heal more quickly. He said federal agents have contacted his agent, Mark Steinberg, but denied Galea provided him with performance-enhancing drugs.

"He never gave me HGH or any PEDs," Woods said. "I've never taken that my entire life. I've never taken any illegal drug, ever, for that matter."

Woods was more circumspect about the reason for the 45 days he said he spent in in-patient therapy earlier this year -- "That's personal, thank you," he said -- as well as his use of the prescription drugs Vicodin and Ambien. Though he admitted using Ambien as a sleep aid during difficult times, he would not address whether it contributed to the accident, in which he hit a fire hydrant and a tree very near his driveway, causing him a bloody lip that required five stitches and an ambulance trip to a local hospital.

"The police investigated the accident," Woods said, "and they cited me 166 bucks, and it's a closed case."

How the events of the past five months will affect Woods as a golfer is a very open-ended question. He has not competed, in any format, since his infidelity became public, and there will be differences apparent here. His wife, Elin, won't be at the tournament, Woods said, a rarity for a major championship. And his game will almost certainly be rusty; his opening tee shot Monday went well left of the first fairway. Whether the rust is off by Thursday is anyone's guess.

"His intimidation factor is always there, but you have to play good golf," Couples said. "He hasn't played much. It would be crazy for me to say he's not going to do well, but it would be crazy for me to say he's the guy to beat, because he hasn't played a competitive round of golf in five or six months."

Since he won the first of his four Masters championships in 1997, when he was just 21, Woods has been clear about his professional goals: He wants to break Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 professional major championships. Now, at 34, he stands at 14. That, then, brought the final difference in this Monday from those before other Masters. Woods, so focused for so long, tried to play down his obsession with that mark.

"I need to be a better man going forward than I was before, " Woods said. "And just because I've gone through treatment doesn't mean it stops. I'm trying as hard as I possibly can each and every day to get my life better and better and stronger, and if I win championships along the way, so be it."

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