Masters galleries take Tiger to heart

In his wildest dreams, Tiger Woods couldn't have hoped for a better return.

Emerging from five months of tabloid hell, Woods recorded his best-ever opening round at the Masters on Thursday, a four-under-par 68 which left him in a tie for seventh, two shots off the lead of the reborn Fred Couples.

At the end of an eventful day, even Woods was surprised.

"A little bit, yeah," he acknowledged.

But as good as his start to the tournament was, the tone of the Woods comeback wasn't determined by his three birdies or the two eagles, but by the fans.

He was embraced, encouraged and applauded. We saw Thursday that forgiveness is possible; that people are willing to give Tiger Woods a second chance.

"The people, I haven't heard them cheer this loud in all my years here," he said.

"So it certainly helped keep my spirits up because I was certainly missing a bunch of putts out there. It helps when you get the crowd like that.

"I said thank you all the way. I was saying thank you all day. The people were just incredible, incredible all day."

And maybe that was the real lesson of Thursday for Woods: that redemption isn't a one-way street.

He has his part to do, too.

As Augusta National chairman Billy Payne sternly said the day before, "with fame and fortune comes responsibility, not invisibility."

Woods needed to know, Payne said, that he wasn't playing golf just for himself and that "every kid he passes on the course wants his swing, but would settle for his smile."

Woods clearly took the message to heart. I've never seen him smile so much, tip his cap to the galleries and generally acknowledge the fans like he did Thursday.

He was a man in search of acceptance.

Not that he's anti-social by nature, but it's always suited Woods to play the ice man on the golf course.

Certainly, it adds to his aura of intimidation.

Nick Faldo said at the Masters' champions dinner this week he noticed that the Woods aura, which "used to be about 30 feet around," keeping people away, had shrunk considerably. He was looser, more relaxed and friendlier.

And that's how he played golf on Thursday, often laughing and joking with KJ Choi.

Banished was the club throwing -- though he had to catch himself a couple of times after errant shots -- the swearing and, also, gone was the conservative, playing-not-to-lose style that I believe cost him a chance at a major last year.

Woods didn't want to dig too deeply after Thursday's round about the metaphysical elements of his return -- "I'm here to play a golf tournament," he reminded us -- but when I asked him whether he felt more at peace, he agreed.

"Yeah, I did," he said. "I felt very much so."

Maybe buoyed by the thunderous applause he received on the first tee, Woods hit a beautiful cut drive into the left-center of the fairway, then hit a nice iron approach to 10 feet.

"I got into the flow of the round early," he said.

He left the birdie putt short and in the heart, a familiar refrain throughout the day.

Some have compared this comeback with his nine-month layoff after knee reconstruction surgery last year, but it's more akin to returning after his father's passing in 2006. That, like this, was more about emotional wounds than physical ones.

Interestingly, Woods compared Thursday's round with the U.S. Open at Winged Foot -- where he missed the cut for the first time as a pro at a major --- which followed Earl Woods' death.

"At the U.S. Open, after my dad died I didn't get into the rhythm of the round. It took probably three four holes; by then I was probably 2 or 3 over par, and you can't do that at the U.S. Open. Today I was 1 under through three, and that's a positive start."

It helped that the course was set up to rain birdies.

"I expected to go out there and shoot something under par today," he said.

"After looking at all the scores, guys were just tearing this place apart, and looking at the tee setups, the pins were friendly, especially on the par 5s, and most of the tees were up.

"If you drove the ball well, you could get it down there where you could be pretty aggressive. Unfortunately I didn't putt very good today, otherwise it could have been a very special round."

His round hit high gear with the only eagle of the day on the par-5 eighth, followed by an audacious birdie on the ninth, where Woods hooked a 5-iron about 40 yards from the left tree line with a strong right-to-left wind.

He got lucky breaks on 10 and 11, his tee shots hitting trees and kicking back into play, but missed a short birdie putt on 12, then lipped out for eagle on 13. After a miscue at 14, Woods responded with an eagle at the 15th, bringing a huge roar from the galleries.

"Somebody loves him," said CBS analyst David Feherty.

Woods had very good looks at 16 and 18 but missed both.

Although he wanted to focus on golf, Woods did address the controversial Nike ad which shows him staring at the camera while the words of his late father are heard in the background.

"I think it's very apropos," he said, "I think that's what my dad would say. It's amazing how my dad can speak to me from different ways, even when he's long gone. He's still helping me."

"I think any son who has lost a father and who meant so much in their life, I think they would understand the spot."

Woods also said that he and Payne had spoken, though he didn't seek to defend himself.

"I was disappointed in myself, too," he said.

Woods seemed happiest, though, that finally the conversation was back on golf.

He's even thinking about winning a fifth green jacket.

"Why enter the event if you don't think you can win? If I don't feel like I can win, then I won't enter the event," he said.

"I felt, this is what I can do. For the most part, I've been pretty efficient at it most of my life."