History will tell whether Woods is hero or villain, but this week it's about the golf

Tiger Woods, 2010 Masters, Monday
Fred Vuich/SI
Tiger Woods played in front of a gallery Monday for the first time since the Australian Masters in November.

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- He's been in rehab, he's been "working on it" with his wife, Elin, and meditating, which has left the rest of us with a lot of down time that would normally be spent watching him clobber his peers in San Diego, Tucson and Orlando. The subsequent referendum on Tiger Woods as a human being became pop culture's time-suck of the moment, until, of course, it got stale, even as Vanity Fair delivers its own birdies-to-bogeys account of Tiger's extramarital dalliances.

And so it seems felicitous that Woods this week finally returns to the place that made us care about him in the first place, the golf course, at the Masters at Augusta National. For the first time since his SUV caromed off a fire hydrant in the wee hours after Thanksgiving nearly five months ago, Woods sat for a press conference at Augusta on Monday afternoon. Even he was nervous (although he later said he wasn't), kicking things off by saying he was coming in from a practice round "with Craig there" — Masters media committee chairman Craig Heatley, sitting to his right — before correcting himself. "Or, sorry — Craig. Freddie [Couples]! And then Jim [Furyk] joined us on the 13th hole," Woods said. "And it was just — what a great day today."

Phew. Good to get that cleared up.

Woods arrived at the course before 8 a.m. Monday in a military-green Chevy Suburban with tinted back windows, which stood out in the champions' lot among the silver Mercedes SUVs (the Masters courtesy car) and Zach Johnson's red BMW.

In his long, often-chilly relationship with the press, the 14-time major winner has mostly had his way, and while he was cordial — on more than one occasion he addressed reporters by nickname — this day would be no different. Tiger's homecoming, which CBS president Sean McManus predicted would be "the biggest media event other than the Obama inauguration in the past 10 or 15 years," began with a 35-minute Q&A that featured little evasive action but somehow also provided little fresh insight.

Woods did not give details of his car crash or say why he initially refused to cooperate with the Florida Highway Patrol. "I did everything to the letter of the law," he said. "The lawyers gave me advice and I followed that advice, and again, I did everything to the letter of the law."

He admitted he has taken the sleep-aid Ambien — beginning when his father, Earl, got sick and died — and the pain-killer Vicodin for "some pretty interesting knee situations over the years." But he denied getting treatment for addiction to those drugs and dodged the question of whether Ambien played a role in his car crash.

"Well, the police investigated the accident, and they cited me 166 bucks and it's a closed case," he said. (Actually it was $164, but maybe Woods gave a tip.)

He asked us to stop pestering his peers with questions about Tiger Woods.

He did not say what addiction his 45 days of in-patient therapy was for, but if it wasn't prescription drugs we can pretty much guess by now. Or maybe we can't. Can a person be addicted to control? Money? Both seem possible, if not obvious.

On the most explosive subject, Woods said he was merely following the lead of other athletes when he saw Canadian doctor Anthony Galea, who treated Woods on four occasions at his home in Orlando as he recovered from left knee surgery and a torn right Achilles tendon. Galea was arrested in Canada last October on drug charges and is under investigation in the U.S. for providing performance-enhancing drugs.

Woods denied taking anything illegal and said his agent, Mark Steinberg, has been contacted by investigators and offered his "full cooperation, whenever they need me."

The knee feels great, "except when a front comes through."

And that was about it.

Woods asked us in his brief televised speech in February to "find room in your heart to one day believe in me again," after he stonewalled the cops and before his most strident denials that some of his inner circle knew of and enabled his trysts — as some reports indicate they did.

But golf, especially major championship golf, is not a popularity contest, and while Woods may have few admirers, for now he has fans. They gave muted applause as he strode to the first tee on Monday. By 8:30 they were ringing the second tee five-deep. It was long-awaited public golf from the world's most public golfer.

Inside the ropes, Woods is without human frailty, balky left knee be damned. His winning percentage (28% on the Tour alone, higher if you count exotic overseas events) is so high as to be absurd. At 21.8%, Ben Hogan was the only other player to reach the 20s. Byron Nelson won at an 18.5% clip, and Jack Nicklaus was at 12.3%.

No player is bigger than the game, but equal, well, sure. Woods is golf, and vice versa, which makes his chilly relationship with the press a bit ironic. As the media filed out of the most eagerly anticipated press conference in golf history, you had to smile at the fact that Woods has become like a good columnist. Love him or hate him, you can't ignore him.

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