AUGUSTA, Ga. A Monday practice round rarely draws much attention from golf fans, even at a major championship. But Tiger Woods's practice round with Fred Couples this morning provided us with our first chance to see the game's No. 1 player hitting balls in 144 days.
For the fortunate patrons on hand Monday, it was an opportunity that couldn't be missed.
Woods and Couples teed off at 8 a.m., while the dew was still on the grass in the shady areas of Augusta National and the wind was non-existent. The scene was surprisingly quiet.
When the starter called each player's name, there was just a smattering of polite applause. As they walked the fairways and greens, the only sound was the chirping of birds.
Silence can be respectful, but this silence felt awkward. It was as if the fans didn't know if it was okay to clap or show support for Woods.
Although there were some cheers when Tiger chipped in, twice, on the third green, the ice was finally broken as Woods walked up the fifth fairway. A single fan called out, "Go Tiger!" Suddenly a chorus of voices could be heard encouraging Woods as he strolled toward the left fairway bunker, where his tee shot had landed.
After his tee shot on the 180-yard par 3 stopped about 10 feet from the hole, the gallery, which had grown from several hundred people to several thousand, roared. It was loud, echoing through the pine trees as Tiger and Freddie walked down the hill. And when Woods holed the putt, another roar came forth.
Tiger's agent, Mark Steinberg, said, "Well, that's a pretty big crowd," as he gazed down the ninth hole. There, encircling the green, the crowd was 10- to 15-people deep behind the ropes.
Instead of heading in after completing the ninth hole, Woods and Couples continued to the 10th. "Why not play all 18? He's got nothing to do until 2," Steinberg said.
Jim Furyk joined the players as they walked to the 14th tee and played the rest of the holes with them.
On the par-3 16th hole, after each player hit his shot, the crowd begged the players to adhere with tradition and try to skip a ball across the pond. Couples reached into his pocket and dropped a ball in the rough in front of the members tee area. Then, Steve Williams tossed one down for Woods, and Fluff Cowen, Furyk's caddie, fished a ball out of his player's bag.
The three players conferred, then all three hit shots at the same time that skimmed across the pond's surface and rolled onto the green. As the crowd cheered, Tiger, his eyes hidden behind the sunglasses he put on as he began the back-nine, laughed.
Tiger also laughed a lot while talking in the fairways with Couples. He laughed while talking with Couples' long-time caddie, Joe LaCava. It was probably a relief in the hours leading up to his press conference.
Gauging how well a player will do on Thursday by his performance in a Monday practice round is impossible. Woods missed a lot of fairways, left a bunker shot in the sand on the fourth hole and put his second shot on the par-5 13th into Rae's Creek. But he made a lot of putts, controlled his wedge shots and used the slope beautifully to roll the ball back to the hole on the par-3 16th. Overall, his short game appeared more tournament-ready than his long game, but he still looked like a player who had the tools to score well here.
Can he compete this week? We'll have to wait a few more days to find out.