Out of the shadows, Tiger on the prowl

TIGER WOODS arrived without warning on a lazy Sunday afternoon at the Masters.

He offered a playful jab yesterday when he greeted two reporters he had not seen in five months, acting as though nothing had changed. He then strolled onto the new practice facility at Augusta National and stopped to chat with Paul Casey.

“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.”

Woods has not been seen in public, except for a few chosen media, since his middle-of-the-night car accident in November that set off revelations of a sordid life few knew existed. More than a four-time Masters champion and the top player in golf, he is famous worldwide for a sex scandal that have made him a regular in tabloids.

He is to speak at 2pm today in a news conference of such interest that the club has limited seating to one reporter for each news outlet, with only a few exceptions.

Most of the players have not seen him since he won the Australian Masters on November 15, or played in Shanghai the week before. Jim Furyk had not seen him since they celebrated a Presidents Cup victory on October 11. They spoke for about five minutes on the practice green.

“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.”

Woods has created a huge void of information by being in seclusion and in therapy from the accident until he spoke to family and friends February 19 at PGA headquarters in Florida.

Some of the players closest to him had been left in the dark, and that was evident as Woods teed off on the back nine. He had intended to start on the first, where caddie Steve Williams set the bag. Kevin Na came over, and Woods decided instead to tee off on the back nine when he saw longtime friend Mark O’Meara.

It was O’Meara who treated him like a kid brother when Woods turned pro in 1996 at age 20. They had grown apart in recent years as O’Meara remarried and moved to Houston. The shared a long embrace before teeing off, and O’Meara hit two shots.

“Gagged on my first one,” O’Meara said. “Not used to playing with this kid.”

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.

Sunday at Augusta National is likely as quiet as it will get all week for Woods. The course is closed except to employees, media and members. It is the only major championship where Augusta National members play alongside the best in the world, and past champions are allowed to bring a guest.

“You don’t normally get George Lopez playing on the Sunday before the Masters,” Casey said. Lopez, one of several comedians who have lampooned Woods in recent months, was three stations down from him on the range. Lopez was playing yesterday with Mike Weir, who won the Masters in a play-off in 2003.

Reporters and photographers are not allowed on the course, and it wasn’t long before Woods vanished down the steep hill of the 10th fairway and toward Amen Corner at the far reaches of Augusta. It was warm and bright, and rare to see Woods hitting balls with sunglasses on.

The gates open at 8am today, and Augusta will come to life with more than 30,000 fans.

The attention typically is on Woods. He now has given everyone other reasons to watch.

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