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Tiger shows his claws after emotional return at Masters

Tiger Woods showed he has lost neither golf skills nor spectator support, making an impressive return from a five-month layoff and a humbling sex scandal at the 74th Masters. Special Coverage

india Updated: Apr 09, 2010 09:36 IST

Tiger Woods showed he has lost neither golf skills nor spectator support, making an impressive return from a five-month layoff and a humbling sex scandal on Thursday at the 74th Masters.

Roaring into contention for a 15th major title and fifth Masters crown, Woods fired his best opening round in 16 Masters starts, shooting a four-under par 68 to stand two strokes off the lead at Augusta National Golf Club.

"It felt just like normal, like every other start, nothing really different," Woods said. "The course could be had a little more today. Pretty much every hole the (tees) seemed to be up a little bit."

Bolstered by applause and supportive cheers from spectators throughout his round, Woods fired two eagles -- another first for him at the Masters -- and took strength from what he called the best support he has had at the event.

"It was heartfelt to have ovations like that all day," Woods said. "The reception was incredible all day. I had not heard them cheer that loud all the years I've played here. It certainly helped keep my spirits up."

Playing his first event in 144 days, the 34-year-old American superstar drew the world's attention with his return after having confessed he cheated on wife Elin while more than a dozen women claimed sexual affairs with Woods.

Woods answered curiosity about his ability to continue dominating golf after the revelation of his secret affairs, but downplayed taking any special meaning from the day, sounding much the same as he has after rounds for 15 years.

"It meant I'm two shots off the lead," Woods said. "I'm here to play golf."

Thousands of others jammed the first tee to see if the exposure of his secret sex life had destroyed his golf game. They quickly learned humiliation was just another adversary for Woods to conquer.

Woods was applauded after his long-awaited return shot off the first tee found the fairway at 1:42 in the afternoon (1742 GMT).

"I felt like it was just another tee shot," Woods said. "Didn't feel any more nerve-wracking, any more tense."

Woods quickly moved to put the scandal behind him on the course the way he wants others to let him move beyond it off the course.

Woods fired a 33 on the front nine, his lowest Masters start. He hit nine of 14 fairways and 14 of 18 greens in regulation while needing only 31 putts, producing a score that surprised even him.

"A couple under par would have been a pretty good round. I felt I would shoot under par. I felt pretty good," said Woods, noting his lack of tuneup events before the Masters.

"Mentally you have to get in the right spot and really take it seriously," Woods said. "My practice sessions had to be more intense than usual.

"I worked really hard for weeks on end. You just go about your business, stay focused, keep plodding along and try not to give shots away."

Woods, chasing the all-time record 18 majors won by Jack Nicklaus, has not won a Masters crown since 2005. This year, Woods hopes to win the Masters in his season debut, a feat achieved only by Ben Hogan in 1951 and 1953.

Woods answered criticism from Augusta National chairman Billy Payne a day earlier, a stinging rebuke about Woods' fall from grace as a role model by the boss of an all-men club whose membership is considered an insult by some women.

"I was disappointed in myself too," was all Woods said in response.

Nike, which has backed Woods since he turned pro in 1996, aired its new television commercial on US coverage just after Woods made his first tee shot.

It features a grim-faced Woods staring at the camera as his late father Earl's voice talks about taking responsibility for one's actions. While critics have questioned the tastefulness of the spot, Woods stands behind it.

"It's very apropos. That's what my dad would say," Woods said. "My dad can speak to me in different ways, even when he's gone. Any son who has lost a father, I think they would understand."

Kultida Woods, Tiger's Thai mother, was among those who followed her son to the remotest regions of the fabled course. She was stoic and wore dark glasses in overcast conditions but able to hear the encouragement for her son.

Woods made eagles at the par-5 eighth and 15th holes, each time in response to a bogey on the prior hole, and also had three birdies in his long-awaited return to competitive golf.

Striding alongside South Korean K.J. Choi and fellow American Matt Kuchar in the penultimate of 32 groups, Woods made the first steps on a road to redemption that might take a lifetime to travel.

Woods also displayed the restraint he promised in a new respect for golf's decorum, curtailing curses after missed shots even as his once exhuberant fist pumps were trimmed back in vigor or ditched in favor of a raised putter.

First Published: Apr 09, 2010 09:26 IST