Palmer and Nicklaus open Masters; Tigers get scolding from tournament chairman
AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Two old rivals swatted ceremonial tee shots this morning to begin the Masters, where all the focus was on a four-time winner trying to rebuild his life.
Tiger Woods was playing for the first time since a Thanksgiving night car wreck led to revelations of numerous extramarital affairs.
Officials at Augusta National insisted that no one player -- not even the world's best embroiled in scandal -- would overshadow their tournament. For a few moments, at least, that was the case as Jack Nicklaus joined Arnold Palmer at the first tee.
"He dominated the Masters like no one before or since," said club chairman Billy Payne. "Please join me in welcoming back Mr. Jack Nicklaus."
"Keep your eye on the ball," someone cracked as the Golden Bear went through a couple of practice swings.
The 70-year-old Nicklaus, a record six-time champion who last played at the Masters in 2005, agreed to return this year to hit the opening shots with Palmer. They both knocked it down the right side, just off the fairway. Two security guards hustled out to pick up the balls.
"I hit a rookie tee shot," Nicklaus said with a smile. "I didn't put my contacts in, so I had no idea where it went. As long as I didn't hear it land, it's OK."
Now, time to begin the tournament for real.
Nathan Green, Heath Slocum and Louis Oosthuizen followed in the first group. Woods was scheduled to tee off with K.J. Choi and Matt Kuchar in the next-to-last threesome at 1:42 p.m. EDT.
That will begin what figures to be one of the most scrutinized opening rounds in golf history -- not a day for winning the tournament, but surely a chance for Woods to show he's still an intimidating presence on the course, if not the same man off it.
"The fact that I haven't really played at all, that's a little bit concerning," Woods said early in the week. "I'm hoping I get my feel back quickly, my feel for the game, my feel for shots, feel more how my body is reacting and what my distances are going to be. I hope I get that back, you know, relatively quickly. Maybe, hopefully, the first hole. But if not, please hope it's the second hole."
Before he went out, Woods had to endure another critical assessment of his double life from Payne.
"It is simply not the degree of his conduct that is so egregious here," Payne said Wednesday in a surprisingly frank dressing-down of Woods at the annual state of the Masters news conference. "It is the fact that he disappointed all of us, and more importantly, our kids and our grandkids. Our hero did not live up to the expectations of the role model we saw for our children."
They were the strongest words from a Masters chairman since Hootie Johnson's famous "point of a bayonet" reply to Martha Burk in the summer of 2002 when he defended the club's right to an all-male membership.
Payne was one of the Augusta National members who stood among the Georgia pines to the right of the first fairway on Monday, the first time Woods played before a gallery since being caught cheating on his wife.
"Is there a way forward? I hope yes. I think yes," Payne said. "But certainly, his future will never again be measured only by his performance against par, but measured by the sincerity of his efforts to change."
A few hours after Payne spoke, Nike released a stark, black-and-white TV ad that showed a solemn Woods, looking directly into the camera while the voice of his father is heard, speaking about taking responsibility.
"Did you learn anything?" says Earl Woods, who died in 2006.
"I hope," Payne said, "he now realizes that every kid he passes on the course wants his swing, but would settle for his smile."
Woods appeared to be as interested in his behavior as his performance during the practice rounds. He was smiling more, making eye contact, even signing autographs.
Payne declined to discuss what type of security was in place, nor was he overly concerned that the return of Woods might overshadow a tournament that attracts the largest golf audience of the year.
"We are very secure in who we are, and the Masters has almost now a 74-year history," Payne said. "We just kind of do things our way. We are not threatened by other big news stories or things like that."
Even so, there has been little attention on anything else this week.
Ernie Els, the only player with multiple PGA Tour victories this year, was not invited to the media center for a pre-tournament interview.
Steve Stricker is No. 2 in the world, with four victories over the last year putting him among the best players who have never won a major. He was introduced at a news conference Tuesday as an eight-time PGA Tour winner who has played on three Presidents Cup and one Ryder Cup team and is making his 10th appearance in the Masters.
"A major," he said. "Is that the way I'm supposed to answer that?"
There are four teenagers in the field, and three Italians, but only one 60-year-old. Most of the old champions have faded away, with Raymond Floyd heading to the sideline two days before the start of the tournament. The 67-year-old didn't even bother with a couple of farewell rounds.
Not that anyone would have noticed.
This tournament is all about Woods, and the chance to start anew.
Payne certainly hopes he takes it.
"We at Augusta hope and pray that our great champion will begin his new life here tomorrow in a positive, hopeful and constructive manner, but this time, with a significant difference from the past," he said. "This year, it will not be just for him, but for all of us who believe in second chances."