Awkwardness greets Woods on Sunday

Tiger Woods arrives at the Augusta National driving range Sunday to practice.

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AUGUSTA, Ga. – On a day so calm you could hear the pollen falling to the ground, things somehow grew even more still when Tiger Woods strolled onto the practice range at Augusta National Golf Club.

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Tiger Woods chats with Jim Furyk at the Augusta National on Sunday.

He may be a one-man hurricane when it comes to generating controversial news, but that certainly didn’t carry over to his first actual appearance among PGA Tour colleagues. In fact, you could say that it was so surreal, it was like no one really knew what to do, as if they were all teenagers on a first date.

Woods strode out to the middle of the range and simply stood there for what was probably three or four minutes. While a dozen PGA Tour guys were hitting balls or walking the range, it’s not as if there were a steady procession over to the world’s No. 1. You almost got the feeling that neither Woods nor the fellow players knew quite what to do.

Escorted onto the range by a handful of plainclothes security officials, Woods then was left to himself on the range, He hit perhaps 15-20 practice shots. He talked briefly with Christian Donald, Paul Casey’s caddie, then with Casey.

Woods then moved over to the putting green, where he got a warm hug from Jim Furyk. But after perhaps 15 minutes there, Woods was off toward the first tee. And why not? Blanketed by a sultry warmth on a sun-splashed Easter, Augusta National GC was at its delectable best, its endless stretch of green offering to Woods a safe refuge from the chaos that he has created for himself.

Then, in a case of either incredible timing or perfect planning, Woods looked up to see Mark O’Meara walking off the ninth green.

In another lifetime, back when Woods was young and setting the golf world afire – rather than abuzz – O’Meara was the veteran who acted as mentor. Life has taken them in totally different directions – heck, they haven’t seen each other since the British Open last July – but now, with Woods needing O’Meara perhaps more than he did 15 years ago, they were embracing like father and son at a funeral. And in a way, it can be viewed as a funeral, because Woods’ image, his reputation, his aura have all been damaged beyond recognition. While the repairs will test him like nothing in golf ever has, what will ease his re-entry will be the open arms of O’Meara and others.

The emergence of O’Meara certainly put a halt to Woods’ plan to go off of the first tee. Motioning to caddie Steve Williams, Woods walked to the 10th tee, leaving Kevin Na and Brian Gay to hit without distraction.

That’s because what constituted a crowd on this day – and Augusta National GC was open only to members, players and media – drifted over to the demanding 10th hole, where first O’Meara delivered a drive that he blocked badly and sent dead right.

“I’m not used to playing with this kid,” O’Meara joked to the circle of reporters. Woods followed with a 3-wood that soared a mile high and drifted ever so slightly left, though not enough to please Woods. He hit a second one – striped it, to tell the truth – then marched down the fairway and engulfed a commodity that he no doubt cherishes these days.

Total tranquility.

The scenes surrounding Woods – surreal comes to mind, and so does timid – were in contrast to the usual array of good cheer on this Sunday before Masters week. As usual, former champions such as Bob Goalby and Craig Stadler were on hand to take advantage of the chance to bring a guest, but it was Ben Crenshaw who seemed to enjoy that perk the most.

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Tiger Woods practices on the driving range at Augusta National on Sunday.

“Meet my brother Charlie,” Crenshaw said with a wide smile. Only thing is, Charlie Crenshaw’s smile was even wider as he cast his eyes out over this year’s spectacular addition to Augusta National GC – a practice range that re-defines the phrase “state of the art.”

Minutes later, after a few swipes on the range, Charlie Crenshaw’s smile grew even wider as he drove off of the first tee. Yes, sir, Charlie’s smile suggested, it sure is nice to have a brother who has won two Masters titles.

George Lopez had to feel similarly as he walked to the range and hit balls alongside his sponsor for the day, 2003 Masters champ Mike Weir. The left-hander and the comedian have become friends through their pro-am appearances, and they were soaking in the ambiance.

Brad Benjamin, in the field as your U.S. Amateur Public Links champion, joined the Crenshaws, making perhaps his 10th trip to Augusta National since receiving his official invite. No guest privileges for Benjamin, nor for qualifiers who haven’t won here, but that didn’t stop a steady stream of them from teeing it up. Geoff Ogilvy, Jerry Kelly, Rory McIlroy, Marc Leishman, Oliver Wilson, Ian Poulter, Todd Hamilton, Casey, Na, Gay . . . they were some of the players who came and went about their duties amid a relative calm.

It’s just that it was even quieter around Woods.

Expect that to change come Monday.

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