AUGUSTA, Ga. – Tiger Woods stood on the seventh green at Augusta National, legs crossed and propped up on his putter, as a V-shaped line of mowers headed back down the fairway like a flock of geese.
He seemed intrigued by this routine bit of maintenance, staring at those whirring machines for the longest time.
Then again, Woods is rarely on the course at this time of day for a practice round, with the sun setting and many of the patrons already headed for home.
Yep, these are unusual times for the four-time Masters champion.
Even so, one thing hasn't changed. Sure, Rory McIlroy is going for a career Grand Slam, Bubba Watson hopes to claim the green jacket for the third time in four years, and Jordan Spieth seems on the verge of a breakthrough victory, but Woods remains the most compelling figure at the first major of the year.
"The game is better when Tiger Woods is around," said old pal Mark O'Meara, who joined Woods to play nine holes late Monday afternoon.
Woods normally practices early in the morning at Augusta, but his surprise appearance showed just how much has changed — and hasn't changed — since he stepped away from the game in early February after some dismal performances, saying he wouldn't return until he was ready to contend again.
This was the first chance for the public to check out the state of his game, and it was hard to get a read on whether he can actually making a run at his 15th major championship.
There were some brilliant shots. There were some ugly shots. Sometimes, they came one after the other, like the dicey downhill putt from the fringe at No. 9 that rolled 40 feet past the cup. Of course, he knocked the comebacker right in the hole for would have been a brilliant par save if they had actually been keeping score.
They won't start doing that until Thursday.
In the meantime, Woods was encouraged.
"It's been a process," he said, "but I'm on the good side now."
Woods insisted that his decision to play at Augusta, announced late last week and without so much as a warm-up tournament, is not a sign that he's downright desperate to break a nearly seven-year drought since his last major win, that at age 39 he realizes he's running out of chances to catch Jack Nicklaus' record 18 championships.
"It's just progression," Woods said. "I felt like I had to get my game into a spot where I felt I could compete to win a golf tournament, and it's finally there."
That remains to be seen. O'Meara, a big fan but a bit more of an unbiased observer, said there's still work to do for Woods to regain his place as the game's most dominant player. Much of it is mental, and no one — not even Woods — knows how he'll react when he's actually writing a score on his card.
"Confidence is a crazy thing in the game of golf," O'Meara said. "It can take years and year and years to gain confidence. Then, you make one, two or three bad shots, and that confidence is gone."
Despite his struggles, Woods still casts a one-of-a-kind aura over the home of the Masters. While many fans had already left by the time he arrived at the course, word quickly spread among those who remained. In short order, there were several thousand patrons trailing Woods and O'Meara around the front nine.
"Come on, Tiger!" one of them shouted after a dead-on approach shot into No. 7. "You can win this thing!"
Woods and O'Meara used to be regular practice partners, but they grew apart when the 58-year-old O'Meara transitioned onto the senior tour. Perhaps hoping that a rekindled friendship might help turn around his game, Woods sent a text Monday morning asking if O'Meara wanted to play in the afternoon.
He jumped at the chance.
"I care about him," O'Meara said. "I wish we could spend more time together. We don't see each other that much anymore."
It was like they'd never been apart. There were plenty of smiles, a few more serious discussions about swings and such, and O'Meara's subtle attempts to boost Woods' mental state.
After finishing up at No. 9, they embraced in a warm hug behind the green.
"His confidence is coming back," O'Meara said, "but it's not going to come back overnight."
When Woods tees it up Thursday, he'll face the inevitable comparisons to the Tiger of old.
Some things never change.
"There will be a lot of pressure," O'Meara said. "All eyes will be on him. I hope for Tiger, and the game of golf, that he plays well."
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