As helicopters swirl, Woods practices Monday

Tiger Woods plays a practice round Monday at Augusta National.

Tiger Woods plays a practice round Monday at Augusta National.

AUGUSTA, Ga. – For all the talk of physically seeing Tiger Woods on a golf course that has dominated news, what jumped out at you while watching him play his early-morning practice round Monday was hearing it.

And, no, that doesn’t address the crowd reaction, because that was predictable. Call it polite. Call it subdued. Call it perfunctory. Or call it what it was – vintage Augusta National. Simply put, these are golf fans, rivaled only by British Open fans for not only their knowledge of the game, but their respect for it. Did they applaud and speak words of encouragement? Of course they did, as they will for each and every other member of the field.

But what you heard while watching Woods play was the whirl of helicopters above, presumably rented by media outlets that will look for a story angle or photo at every inch of this town. The helicopters were not directly over Augusta National, but close enough to the edges that you couldn’t help but notice them. And, no, you won’t find a veteran watcher of this tournament who has ever seen or heard helicopters buzzing above.

That curiousity aside, Woods’ first golf in front of the public since winning a tournament in Australia in November did not get off to a good start. “Fore, left,” is what you heard right after he fired his opening tee shot. Playing alongside Fred Couples, as had been reported, Woods went off at 8:05, right behind Soren Hansen. He never did play that first tee shot, nor did he look particularly sharp, at least early on.

At the par-3 fourth, for instance, Woods was wide right and in the bunker. Not good, but better than his next one, which he nearly pulled into the grandstands. Choosing to play his first one, Woods failed to get that shot out of the bunker, after which he played three shots.

It was, after all, what practice rounds are about, no?

Only this one was about more than the actual playing of golf. What set it apart was his first real public appearance since his world came crashing down upon him. So intriguing was this moment that Augusta National chairman Billy Payne came out to watch Woods hit his first tee shot and several high-profile club members walked along.

They were there, perhaps, to measure the crowd reaction, to get a sense of what Woods is in for. That seemed to be Mark Steinberg’s intentions, too.

As he walked down the first hole, Steinberg remarked that he couldn’t “remember the last time I walked a practice round,” and at several occasions Woods’ agent stopped to talk to key Augusta National members.

Perhaps of more interest than Woods’ swings was his acknowledgement of the fans. It was duly noted that at the second tee Woods shook hands with a patron and on several occasions he seemed to smile and nod his head toward the cheers.

Certainly, on this morning, Woods would have his space. By the time he reached the fifth tee, Hansen was more than a hole ahead. And behind, Woods had no worries, either, because Geoff Ogilvy was only strolling the third fairway.

Showing off his new corporate deal, a hat emblazoned with Schuco, Ogilvy spread his long, flowing arms, looked toward an endless stretch of blue sky, and agreed that “it was a beautiful day for a walk.”

At which time the whirl of helicopters could be heard.

Apparently, some thought it was a beautiful day to intrude.

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