02-19-2017  1:37 pm      •     

AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) -- Jim Furyk finally feels like he's at the Masters, not at Tiger Woods' comeback.

While Woods was still followed by massive crowds during his practice round Tuesday -- even raising a few eyebrows by breaking out his cell phone on the 10th green to videotape Mark O'Meara's putting stroke -- a sense of normalcy settled in at Augusta National.
"This seems kind of like business as usual," said Furyk, who played five holes with Woods under intense scrutiny Monday but felt a lot more relaxed a day later. "I won't call it an ordinary Tuesday, since we're here at Augusta National, but it's an everyday Tuesday here at Augusta."
That might be a bit optimistic.
Sure, the initial furor has subsided, the focus turning more to golf than serial infidelities. But Woods was still the center of attention, with no shortage of speculation on how he'll play coming back from a five-month layoff that included a stint in therapy, plenty of soul-searching, but not many swings on the range.
This is especially interesting to his fellow golfers, who are used to keeping one eye focused warily on the leaderboard, always on the lookout for a charging Tiger.
"I would not be surprised at all if he was contending, and I would not be surprised if he played better golf than ever," three-time major champion Padraig Harrington said. "But there's obviously a doubt to that, and we will only be able to find that out on Sunday evening."
The early scouting reports were not promising. Furyk said the four-time Masters champion was hitting some loose shots during the five holes they played together Monday. Woods rarely was satisfied with his tee shots on Tuesday, hitting two balls on several holes.
Meantime, even a routine practice turned surreal when Woods crouched down and peered into his cell phone to tape his longtime pal O'Meara's stroke. Only three weeks ago, a porn star who claims to have had a three-year affair with Woods released on her Web site what she said were salacious text messages from Woods.
"We ask players not to use their cell phones," club spokesman Steve Ethun said. "We would make exceptions if players were using any kind of recording device during a practice round."
Perhaps no other major championship course changes from practice rounds early in the week to game time on Thursday. The greens seem to get a little faster, the pressure more intense.
Of course, Woods knows a thing or two about dealing with pressure. Think back to the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines two years ago.
After taking nine weeks off to recover from surgery, he held up over five grueling days on a shredded knee and beat Rocco Mediate in a 19-hole playoff. A week later, Woods underwent a season-ending operation.
"I don't think anybody expected him to play well in the 2008 U.S. Open," Phil Mickelson said. "I don't think anybody out here will question his ability to perform at the highest level, even though he has not competed in however many months. So I think from a player's point of view, we expect to see the same player that we have always seen."
Then again, Woods showed up cold for the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot, still grieving the death of his father, and missed the cut _ the first time that had happened at a major since he turned pro. The Masters could present much the same challenge, one that is mental rather than physical.
But for all those who question whether Woods' marital woes will distract or take away from his motivation to win more major titles than anyone, the guy whose benchmark he is chasing quickly shot down that line of thinking.
"Why do you think he's here?" asked Jack Nicklaus, who has won 18 major championships, four more than Woods. "I don't think he's here for his health or anything. He's here to play golf. That's what he is. He's a very good golfer. It's the first major of the year. He's taking large steps to get his life back in order, and he wants to play golf."
Woods will play the first two rounds with K.J. Choi and Matt Kuchar, teeing off in the next-to-last group Thursday _ prime time for the ESPN telecast.
"It's funny, because I sort of had a feeling when I left Dallas that it would be cool if I was paired with Tiger, and it happened," Choi said.
At any other tournament, playing with Woods can be a huge distraction because of so many photographers and reporters tagging along, and fans outside the ropes scrambling for a view.
Augusta National is different.
No one is allowed inside the ropes, and fans walk en masse -- no running allowed.
"It's going to be a lot more at ease this week than most weeks," Woods said. "If there's one week that you would rather have a pairing with me, considering the circumstances, it would probably be this week."
Choi sure didn't mind. Despite some language barriers, he has always been comfortable playing with Woods. They have been paired together 13 times, most recently in the third round of last year's Memorial, which Woods went on to win.
"Even when all this came out and the rumors of Tiger coming back, my friends were saying, 'Wouldn't it be cool if you were paired with Tiger when he played his first tournament?"' Choi said through an interpreter.
Choi found out on the 14th hole from a Masters official. If it didn't sink in at the time, there were a dozen reporters waiting for him as he walked off the 18th green after his practice round. Choi can expect a lot more attention when he tees off Thursday.
"I like playing with big crowds," Choi said. "I will probably play more aggressive."
The gallery following Woods the first two days of practice this week has been enormous, not to mention polite. Woods has received ovations and the occasional "Welcome back, Tiger." Choi expects that to continue.
"It's important that the gallery realize what's going on," he said. "To take what happened outside the golf course and bring it inside the golf course, I don't think that's right. I believe they're educated and will respect the game of golf."
Steve Stricker will be playing in the group ahead of Woods and doesn't expect any problems. At other tournaments, players have said that could be the toughest spot as photographers walk ahead to get into position.
"I don't think it's going to be that big of a deal," Stricker said. "There's a lot of strict policies here. There's no running up and down the fairways. It's pretty calm. Typically, each green is loaded with people, anyway. It doesn't matter when you go out there."
Woods' 1:42 p.m. tee time allows ESPN to fully cover his first round back since his secret life was exposed. John Wildhack, the network's executive vice president, said the Masters is "THE story line, and we're here to cover the Masters tournament."
He said Woods is the biggest story line among players, but not the only one, a view backed up by network host Mike Tirico.
"No one's bigger than the Masters," Tirico said.


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