Tiger Tees Off In The Masters' Protective Bubble

Tiger Woods hits his approach shot on the first hole of the 2010 Masters Tournament. i i

Tiger Woods hits an approach shot Thursday on the first hole at the 2010 Masters. Andrew Redington/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Andrew Redington/Getty Images
Tiger Woods hits his approach shot on the first hole of the 2010 Masters Tournament.

Tiger Woods hits an approach shot Thursday on the first hole at the 2010 Masters.

Andrew Redington/Getty Images

The Masters officially began at 7:50 on Thursday morning, when the first group of players teed off. But it unofficially began at 1:42 in the afternoon, when Tiger Woods, after smiling and waving to a cheering crowd, did what he's always done best.

His opening drive went straight down the fairway, which was where he headed — to try to win a golf tournament, and, in the process, win back a bunch of fans after his fall from grace.

After nearly five months of scandal, Woods chose the Masters for his return because of the protective bubble that the Augusta National Golf Club provides. But that bubble extends only as far as the club's fence.

The Daly Show

Outside the gates of the cloistered club, on adjacent Washington Road, the weeklong free-for-all continued. A Hooters display sold suggestive Masters T-shirts. A guy selling discount jewelry held a sign that read "Pulled a Tiger? Need to make amends?" And farther down the road, pro golfer John Daly was doing his own sidewalk sale.

Daly, who is not playing the Masters this year, has been stationed in front of his massive touring bus all week hawking John Daly merchandise. And his fans have come with words of support.

When it comes to Daly, think of Tiger Woods the way we used to, pre-scandal. Then think about his polar opposite. Chain smoking, gambling, womanizing, getting drunk and in trouble with the law, Daly's done it all, and he remains one of the most popular players on the tour. He also never promised anyone, through slick ad campaigns, image-makers and handlers, that he'd be any different.

They lined up yesterday and bought his book, John Daly: Golf My Own Damn Way. They bought his T-shirts, shook his hand and had their photos taken with him.

The Start Of The Tournament

All week, bucolic Augusta National has been Tiger Woods' safe haven away from the outside. No jokes, no tabloids, no heckling. Security guards during his practice rounds reportedly carried mug shots of his alleged mistresses.

The scandal hasn't been avoided. Billy Payne, the chairman of Augusta National — a club notorious for its past exclusion of anyone not white and male — delivered a stern message to Woods about morality.

"It is not simply the degree of his conduct that is so egregious here; it is the fact that he disappointed all of us, and more importantly, our kids and our grandkids. Our hero did not live up to the expectations of the role model we saw for our children," Payne said at a press conference on Wednesday.

The strong words startled reporters, who had questioned Woods at his own beginning-of-the-week press conference but who seemed most comfortable talking to other players and getting back to golf. Legendary champion Jack Nicklaus held court early in the week, at one point reminiscing about the awe he felt as a young man, playing golf with an earlier legend, Ben Hogan.

"When you hit a good shot — if he said it was a good shot, you knew darn well it was a good shot because he didn't say it was a good shot unless it was a good shot. And y'know he went about his business. I went about my business. I loved that," Nicklaus said.

A New Tiger

Nicklaus' story actually is relevant to the week's hot topic. It illustrates the succession of golf royalty — from Hogan to Nicklaus and now to Woods — and how the game survives that change at the top.

The sport continues uncomfortably right now as its transcendent star goes through his personal crisis — with the help of Nike. Last night, the first post-scandal ad made its debut.

In it, a somber Woods stares into the camera as we hear the voice of his late father:

"I want to find out what your thinking was. I want to find out what your feelings are. And did you learn anything?"

Woods' face dissolves and is replaced by a white swoosh. The new Tiger. Introspective. Believe in him. Buy Nike. Sound familiar?

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