AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Tiger Woods hopped out of an electric shuttle cart, sauntered onto the practice range at Augusta National and took a look around.
Make that a long look.
Sure, the professional practice area at the course is brand new and quite a sight to behold, but those who witnessed his arrival on Sunday said he looked slightly perplexed as he stood, alone, for a couple of minutes, drinking in the place.
The Masters driving range aside, that's not all that has changed in golf or his life as he gears up for Thursday's opening round at the season's first major championship. It's probably not the only thing this week that will stop him in his tracks, either.
Woods, who was wearing sunglasses and had longtime caddie Steve Williams in tow, warmed up alongside several other professional players, his trademark TW logo on his golf bag where the corporate insignias used to be. Key phrase: Used to be. His entire landscape has changed, not just the location of a few trees or tee boxes here and there.
"Hey, listen, in life, no one’s perfect," said his old pal, Mark O'Meara, who played nine holes with the world No. 1 Sunday. "We thought he was, but no one’s absolutely perfect."
Woods was not particularly close, as international tabloid sales indicate. Which brings us to his predicament this week, and what Sunday possibly portends.
Even though The National, as the locals call it, is closed to spectators and media on Sundays before the tournament, a Golf Channel producer said he counted more than 40 security guards ringing the rim of the practice area as the players warmed up, a possible precursor of the phalanx that will surround Woods when play begins Thursday. Inside the media center, some of the Augusta National brass were holding a meeting inside the room where, on Monday at 2 p.m., Woods will meet the global press for the first time since before his Thanksgiving collision with a tree.
Sunday's practice round marked his first appearance in a semi-public area since before the crash that sent him into the worst public-relations tailspin in sports history. After warming up, Woods ventured to the practice putting green near the clubhouse, then hooked up with former neighbor and mentor O'Meara, whom he had not seen since last July.
"He’s swinging well," O'Meara said after they finished. "It’s good to see Hank [Haney] again because we’re dear friends, too. Yeah, I enjoyed my time out there with him. He was relaxed, swinging well and ready to get back at it."
They gave each other a long hug when they met and whatever words were exchanged happened well out of earshot. Woods then jumped under the ropes and joined O'Meara as the latter played his back nine. Woods and O'Meara, past Masters champions, once lived six homes apart on the suburban Orlando street where Woods' life changed after he crashed his car at 2:30 a.m. The course is closed to media and spectators on Sunday, so the old friends had it all to themselves, a few members and tour players notwithstanding.
"Of all the people I’ve ever met he’s one of the toughest guys mentally I’ve ever met," O'Meara said. "He’ll do well this week. He’s been out of the game for awhile, but he left with a win [last November in Australia]. Certainly, he knows how to win. He’s won here, what, four or five times? I think he’s just ready to get back out competing with the rest of the guys."
O'Meara raised a good point about Woods' state of readiness. Woods is used to living in a fish bowl, a term he once texted to one of his mistresses. Well, allegedly.
"Forget about what’s happened over the past four or five months," O'Meara said. "Certainly what’s happened over the past 10-12 years, he’s been the most scrutinized player who’s ever played the game. He’s created the most notoriety, he’s one of the most famous people in the world, forget about being a golfer and an athlete.
"With that comes a lot of responsibility and he probably feels like he’s dropped the ball there. But you know what? He’s manning up to it, he’s trying to get better and as a friend I can only be there to support him and that’s what I’m trying to do."
How his peers will react this week will be interesting. He said hello to Jim Furyk on the practice putting green, but generally kept a low profile. Players on the range didn’t exactly line up to shake his hand.
Woods did show some signs of returning to normalcy, like when he spotted two veteran reporters flitting on the periphery of the new range. He tossed a light-hearted insult at them and then headed off to play.
How many laughs are contained in the rest of the week, or to some degree, his career, is anybody's guess.